OXYGEN
Riverside Studios, London W6
Opened 15 November, 2001

*** Not theatre so much as a dramatised science lecture

Renowned chemist Carl Djerassi is candid that he writes novels and plays to educate lay people about science, but it's a bit too obvious.

This play tells the story of... no, it doesn't: it instructs us about the discovery of oxygen in the 18th century. To this end, it invents two fictitious stories. In the first, the three claimants to the title of discoverer Scheele, Priestley and Lavoisier gather in 1777 to be judged for a special medal struck by the King of Sweden. This is intercut with the debate of a panel convened to award the first "retro-Nobel" Prize for achievement in chemistry prior to 1900; in other words, the moderns comment upon and generally explicate the importance of their predecessors' research (and roles are doubled between the two time lines). Neither strand of this pretend-history reaches a conclusion.

The six performers all turn in solid work; the fault is in the play. Much of the first half has a televisual scenic structure, with actors changing costumes in lengthy blackouts for scenes lasting barely a minute (and the repeated musical "stings" really begin to wear after a little while). But mostly, Djerassi and co-author Roald Hoffmann cannot conceal that their interest lies not in the story qua story, but in the knowledge they are using it to impart to us.

Written for divento.com

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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