It's 1980 and Richard Feynman is being filmed in his home for a BBC documentary about his life. There's a kind of sharp urgency in his manner, and you can instantly sense beneath the rambling anecdotes and entertaining examples a keen and twitching intelligence. Indeed, there's something both offputting and alluring in Feynman's mien; a messianic fervour, as if at any moment he might pause in his dialogue, and in a stage whisper, disclose some latter-day scientific prophecy. A pity then, that little of this dangerous eccentricity and brilliance came through in the Ensemble Theatre's production of QED, by Peter Parnell, a dramatised re-telling of the events of Feynman's life.
The life of American Physicist Richard Feynman, bongo-playing prankster, accomplished lock-pick and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physics, offers promising material for a strong stage adaptation. Described by his friend and colleague Freeman Dyson as “all-genius, all-buffoon”, Feynman expanded Quantum Electrodynamic theory, helped unravel the puzzle of the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster, assisted in the development of the Atomic Bomb, and developed a series of widely-used pictorial diagrams explaining a variety of mathematical expressions in the area of subatomic particles, which became known as the Feynman Diagrams. He was a Professor at Cornell University and the California Institute of Technology at Pasadena, California, and a darling of the populist science world.
The Ensemble Theatre's production of this play, starring Henri Szeps, presents a very different Feynman - cuddly, harmless, clowning, without really portraying the fierce intelligence of the character. The play is written as a one-man show for Feynman to tell stories from his life, with the odd visitation on Feynman by Miriam Field (played by Ivy Mak), a bright and keen young physics student. The text, however, seems to have been treated as a vehicle for Henri Szeps to delve into his swag of stock characterisations. Some stories from Feynman’s life were entertaining to hear, and these funny anecdotes gave a warm, buttered-toast feeling for a little while. But what might have passed in the first half as a pleasant if unadventurous portrayal of Feynman was quickly revealed in the second half as a mechanical performance by rote, Szeps trotting out a Xeroxed series of mix-and-match gestures and expressions like a practiced vaudeville routine.
Ivy Mak turned in a performance that can only be described as appalling. With vocals and stage presence evocative of the sound of fingernails down a blackboard, the best part of her directionless, shrill and irritating performance was her departure from the stage.
Either unable or unwilling to extract the marrow of the play's subject matter, Director Andrew Doyle has brought forth a production that, while offering occasional glimpses of humorous storytelling, is by and large shallow, unspontaneous, and highly miss-able.
Ensemble Theatre presents
By Peter Parnell
Venue: Ensemble Theatre, 78 McDougall Street, Kirribilli, NSW
Dates: Previews: May 8 - 15, opening night Fri May 16, season to Sat June 28
Performances: Tues - Fri 8.15pm, Sat 5pm & 8.30pm, Sun 5pm, Thurs 11am
Prices: $38 - $62 (booking charges may apply)
Bookings: 02 9929 0644 or www.ensemble.com.au