The plethora of connections and lateral hints thrown out by Terry Johnson's Insignificance do not confine themselves to the stage. Halfway through the first act I found myself briefly pondering a front-row audience member's resemblance to Arthur Miller. Given that one of the characters in Johnson's play, although never named, is to all intents and purposes Marilyn Monroe at the end of her marriage to a similarly anonymous Joe DiMaggio, the coincidence of the Miller lookalike assumes a greater significance.
As "the Actress" takes refuge from the pressures of fame by explaining the theory of special relativity to "the Professor" who formulated it, while the latter spends his final night in a hotel room before being subpoenaed by "the Senator" for alleged un-American activities (the missing names are obvious), Johnson muses upon the Hydra-headed monster of celebrity, postulating that interpersonal chains of causation are just as likely to run through such supposedly "special", "different" lives, and yet that such links are no more and no less especially important than for the rest of us. The procession of cause and effect in the play's second act affects the lives of all four characters deeply and directly, but also discreetly suggests that, for instance, McCarthy's actions were indirectly responsible for Monroe's subsequent marriage to the author of The Crucible.
Johnson's rewrites for the play's 1995 Donmar Warehouse run also take advantage of growing general awareness of 20th-century scientific theory. A cat's miaow is heard from the offstage bathroom; Einstein explains: "It belongs to a friend of mine"; to us, unable to see whether the cat actually exists or Is a theatrical fiction, it must be – like Schrödinger's hypothetical moggy – both alive and dead at the same time.
Loveday Ingram's production keeps things simple. Allan Corduner's Professor is vocally monotonous, but rings subtle, engaging changes through his manner. Sharon Small's Actress lacks vulnerability beneath the steely exterior which her iconic status has forged, yet she manages to remain fundamentally sympathetic. The production restates with some flair Johnson's point that, whether in physics or with people, absolute certainty is an illusion: "Knowledge is not truth – it is merely agreement."
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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