Reviews & Interviews 2011
LET NEWTON BE! Interview;
Writer Craig Baxter, Director Patrick Morris & Designer Issam Kourbaj talk about the production
Born during the English Civil War, and living through a period of extreme political, intellectual and religious upheaval, Isaac Newton was a scientist in a world before the word was invented.
At Cambridge, Newton studied mathematics and was strongly influenced by Euclid, especially his work on optics. In the early 1700s, he was the dominant figure in British and European science and his influence continues up to the present day.
Craig, Patrick, Issam, how did the project and your involvement in it come about?
Patrick Morris (PM): Denis Alexander (Faraday Institute director) saw our previous play Re:Design by Craig Baxter about Darwin and commissioned us to write a piece about Newton for them.
Craig Baxter (CB): Re:Design concentrated very much on the interplay between science and the religious ideas of the time.
Issam Kourbaj (IK): For the last few years I have been working with light and optics. Patrick saw my 2009 work using camera obscura, optics and light and !asked me if I would be interested in designing the set for the play.
What do you find most interesting about the story of Newton?
CB: The popular impression of Newton is that he was a founding father of the scientific way of thinking, completely at odds with religion. But once you start looking at things from his point of view, using his words to reconstruct his life and struggle, you see him in a very different light.
He was a deeply religious man and his scientific work was a small part of his life. Theology came first and he also held heretical opinions: believing that the established Church had taken a wrong turn back in the 4th century when it adopted the doctrine of the Trinity. He thought this was dangerous, damnable nonsense.
PM: He was a compulsive list-maker – he even compiled a list of all the sins he’d committed up until the age of 23. Written in code, it wasn’t ‘translated’ into English until the 20th century.
IK: He had an extraordinary inquisitive mind and you can easily see that his early curiosity and mechanical fascinations seeded his later theories on calculus, optics and the law of gravitation.
What themes do you think are most important in Let Newton Be!?
PM: Lightness and darkness; religious obsession; the making of genius.
CB: The issues that seem to have been most important to Newton himself, his exploration of the relationships between mind and body, and between God and Creation.
There’s a musical, rhythmic rule of three at the play’s heart. There are three actors, three Newtons, he was a heretical anti-trinitarian at Trinity College Cambridge. The play begins with him struggling with the physics of the three body problem – a moon-like object orbiting an earth-like object which itself is orbiting a sun-like object.
What kind of research / preparation work did you do?
CB: I read several biographies (Richard Westfall, Rob Illife, James Gleick, A Rupert Hall) and then dived into the primary materials. Patrick and I had a tour of Trinity College Cambridge, where there are images of Newton everywhere once you start looking: death-mask, portraits, stained-glass windows, statues, his book collection.
PM: It’s important to try to get under his skin, underneath the myth, to find details of his behaviour that can inspire the actors.
IK: The more I read about Newton’s life and work, the more I became fascinated by his experimental curiosity, particularly in his early years. Because of my interest in lights and optics, I conducted some experiments with light,
testing different possible ways of using them on stage.
After reading the play many times, we went to visit Newton’s house at Woolsthorpe.
CB: – there wasn’t room for me in the car. They did bring me back an apple from ‘the tree’ though…
PM: Like Newton, I’m a compulsive note-maker – there all comparisons end! – which I then distil and edit for use in rehearsal. Ultimately, you have to be prepared for the unexpected in rehearsal, because it’s in those moments that the most exciting discoveries take place. Long before rehearsals start, I’ve met with the design team, so those ideas are already cooking before the actors begin their work in the rehearsal room. And then the discoveries we make in the rehearsal room make their way back to the design team, as we begin to shape the play for performance.
Can you tell us a little about how you all worked together?
PM: Craig is really the project’s link between science and theatre, as he has a foot in both worlds. He trained as a scientist and he’s also a truly original playwright with a deep understanding of dramatic structure. Craig
came up with the brilliant conceit of having three Newtons, all on stage together. Newton had no lasting human relationships which sustained him, so we put him in relationship with himself – relationships are the key to all great drama.
IK: We had a rather short time to go through the many issues of the set, but I attended some rehearsals, and made visual suggestions to Patrick. Some of these ideas found their way to the final piece, and some didn’t. Patrick and I were both inspired by the notion of transformations, physicality and metaphorically.
PM: Issam’s work is heavily influenced by his understanding of Newton’s optics and his design is key to the aesthetic of the production. He’s been essential to creating the visual world that we present, always coming up with new ways of seeing that I hadn’t even thought about.
Patrick, what do you think are the challenges in directing Let Newton Be?
PM: The language – it’s sometimes dense and leads you in unexpected directions. It’s a very exciting and different creative challenge. The text is derived from written words, not spoken ones, so they don’t contain the same heat and drive.
And how would you describe your style of work?
PM: I’m interested in detail – of gesture, of vocal quality, and of each moment: the infinitesimal – and I try to stand back and see what it’s all amounting to. It’s a constant dynamic between being inside the play and observing it from the outside.
Craig, how do you go about writing a stage play?
CB: Generally I read some stuff, maybe talk to some people, take notes, organise the notes, make a plan, write some scenes, change the plan, write some more scenes, send it out for comment (ideally to the person who’s going to direct it), redraft, maybe have a reading where flaws become apparent, redraft, go into rehearsal, tweak – lots of cutting and pasting!
And what about for Let Newton Be! in particular?
CB: The evolution of this play has been quite smooth. Rather than one or two big redrafts, there have been countless mini-drafts. It’s a constant tweaking as we move forward, rather than radical reformations. Newton has been probably the hardest writing job I’ve had to do. The main difficulty in driving the drama forward was the lack of direct conflict between characters as well as maintaining the balance between some highly abstract verbatim material and the knockabout stage business that kept the story rolling along. The challenge for Newton has been making dry, dense, difficult and voluminous material accessible.
With Let Newton Be! and Re:Design I’m occupying quite a specific niche. These plays are not Craig Baxter’s takes on Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin but, so far as I can make them, a fair and honest representation of the source material.
How did you decide what to include/miss out from Newton’s story?
CB: Essentially you have to use material that helps pin down the story of Newton’s life, or sheds light on his character, or things that reflect the central themes (God, religion, the meaning of life). Jokes, conflict, manipulations, hidden agendas: where he is saying one thing but clearly meaning another. Sometimes it’s a case of finding material that will fill in the gaps: get us from one place to another.
Once you know the material (or at least know where to find particular types of material) it makes the whole process easier. I could see the characters clearly in my head as I was writing. Although the three Newton’s are essentially the same man, they are very distinct characters. In a way, in dividing up the dialogue, it was fairly easy to decide which line to place into which mouth.
Issam, how do you go about designing for a stage play? Can you describe your work processes?
IK: I suppose if directors are to see beyond the written word, then as a set designer, my aim is to create a visual voice. I read the play and research possible historic and artistic links, then I sketch some ideas and discuss it with the director. I read Let Newton Be! while on holiday, and it became very apparent that something to link the three Newtons together is the keystone of the design. After stumbling upon an old design of chair/ladder in Spain, the idea of chair/toy became the design theme for me. I had made a scale model of the set and the chair, and invited everyone to see it. Seeing it “live” on stage after construction, we were all able to learn from its workings and better appreciate its potential.
Patrick, what do you hope is in the mind the audience at the end of the show?
PM: The show should have a strong “Wow” factor. I hope that they’ll think on their own relationship to the material world and that they’ll come back to fundamental questions about why and what the forces are that govern our lives. It’s a great cliché about theatre, but with Newton’s life, we see a remarkable journey from the fields of Lincolnshire to the heights of intellectual and political power.
Craig, what questions are you hoping to raise/answer with this production?
CB: It is to show Newton in all his complexity. To tell his story, from his point of view. I want the audience to leave talking about Newton. Drama generates interest and enthusiasm for a subject. It allows ideas and emotions to brush up close, helping us feel a little of what it must have been like to be Newton.