Arnold Wesker has in recent years been a playwright revered in his native country more in theory than in practice. His 1990s pieces Blood Libel (about mediaeval anti-semitism) and Denial (about child sexual abuse and Recovered Memory Syndrome) vanished into obscurity after their initial regional productions, leaving Wesker to be periodically hailed as one of the great voices of 1960s British drama but seldom revisited as such.
More recently, that has changed. Last year's revelatory Nottingham Playhouse revival of his first play, Chicken Soup With Barley (1958) is about to come into London, and the Greenwich Theatre has made one of its now infrequent in-house productions Wesker's stage adaptation of Dava Sobel's book Longitude – a move which ties in both with Greenwich in general (its observatory being the location which defines the prime meridian of longitude) and the SeaBritain 2005 maritime festival.
Sobel's book follows the 18th-century quest to find a practical and accurate method of determining longitude at sea, the inability to do which was causing wrecks that cost thousands of pounds in lost cargo and hundreds of lives. In particular, she focuses on Yorkshire-born clockmaker John Harrison, who spent more than half his life developing a mechanical solution to the problem (a timepiece which kept precise and reliable time at sea in all climes) rather than attempting to find a complex formula of celestial calculations. Consequently Harrison regularly found himself, a northerner of modest origins (though far from modest temperament), at odds with the noblemen of the Royal Society, the "priests and professors" on the board administering the £20,000 prize endowed by Act of Parliament for the first such method to pass muster.
This is the kind of opposition Wesker enjoys portraying: that of a fervent, individualistic underdog against an establishment. And Anthony O'Donnell is made for such a role: short, stocky and blunt of manner, he often seems like a glowering bullet in breeches. In fact, Harrison begins to seem so contrary that one almost begins to listen to the Longitude Board's protestations of their own reasonableness, until one of them comes out with some snobbish enormity.
The main problem is that of all dramas in similar areas: how to convey the technical bits. Wesker opts for a number of questioning sessions by Harrison's wife as a mystified layperson. These do the job, and certainly not with the stultifying didacticism of, say, most of the dramas of chemistry professor-turned-playwright Carl Djerassi, but there is a whiff of Theatre in Education about it... particularly at a matinee performance largely peopled by school parties. Matters aren't helped by Mossie Smith's broad, wide-eyed style of playing Elizabeth Harrison (her opening speech almost defines the phrase "bursting with pride"), which gives her the air of a Georgian-era children's television presenter. (This is also the sort of historical drama in which everyone gives four syllables to "Parl-i-a-ment".)
A nice, discreet thematic link is fostered in Fiona Laird's production by having most of the cast double as various notables and also as a chorus of sailors representing those lives already lost or to be saved, singing various shanties and ballads. Harrison was also a choirmaster, and his attitude to his chronometers was the same as towards the voice: that it was a matter of tuning. In Wesker's script he even wonders at one point whether he is deficient in tuning his own tone sweetly enough for the Board.
Anthony Lamble's ship's-deck-cum-compass set design is simple yet versatile, and Hadley Fraser as Harrison's son William enables some touching generational scenes. Anything which restores Wesker to his deserved prominence is to be welcomed, but this piece can't help feeling somewhat tangential to his work as a whole.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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