16 May

In one of my favourite cartoons, two dogs walk down the street and one complains to the other “It’s always ‘good dog’, never ‘great dog’.”

I was reminded of this comment on parsimony and praise as I watched Relativity by Mark St. Germain.

Not surprisingly, the play’s about Albert Einstein, though the title might be more than just a reference to his most famous theory.

The play explicitly asks “To be a great man, do you have to be a good one?” In the context of the story – Einstein receiving a surprise visitor to whom he is intimately and somewhat awkwardly related – the positing of this question so openly tells us that psychological veracity is not what’s being valued here.

So it’s a play of ideas? Well, the play’s fundamental question is an odd one. “To be a great man, do you have to be a good one?” ‘Great’? What does that actually mean? Does it mean ‘exceptionally good’? But that would beg the question. Or does ‘greatness’ simply mean to be held in high-esteem for reasons other than ethics? In which case, why connect greatness and goodness at all?

Discussions of greatness are often mere valorisations of celebrity. But, if instead, the fundamental question being asked is about the nature of goodness, then the play deals with this enormously complex issue rather obliquely. (This Einstein says Hitler was evil while an adulterer is not – a distinction you don’t need to be Einstein to make.)

What if I let go my philosophical pretensions, and see the play as just a historical portrait? This means I’m being asked to care if the actual Einstein was a good man or not, and that still presupposes a fascination with celebrity (and it’s not going to make any difference to the physics.) And another thing; since what’s portrayed is a private and presumably imagined conversation, can it be taken as an accurate representation of the man? In this play, Einstein says that thirty years of an average person’s life is not as valuable as a great work of art. Did the real man say anything like that?

Clearly, the play is thought-provoking.

It’s a three hander and director Johann Walraven elicits utterly watchable performances from his cast.  Nicholas Papademetriou as Einstein is a beautiful mixture of gentle-hearted humour and a laser sharp intellect. Nisrine Amine as his surprise visitor wonderfully tempers bewilderment at Einstein’s complexity and a cold anger at his self-absorption. Alison Chambers as Einstein’s housekeeper, and lover, is delightfully amusing when she’s manipulating him, and deeply poignant when the power relations are less clear.

Paul Gilchrist

Relativity by Mark St. Germain

at Riverside Parramatta from 10 – 13 May

Image by Iain Cox

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