Isaac’s Eye; The Pitman Painters

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

img_isaacseyeBy Lucas Hnath; Directed by Paul McLaughlin
Circa Theatre, Wellington | October 18-November 15

Isaac Newton, famed scientist, acclaimed thinker, and face of the short lived £1 note, lived in a period of fascinating scientific advances, where ownership of ideas and the chase towards ‘the new’ walked a line between noble scientific pursuit and catty scrapping over claims. Isaac’s Eye by Lucas Hnath, a chirpy and off kilter portrait of Isaac Newton, also walks a line between a traditional historical doco-drama and a postmodern character study.

On the surface this is a fast, frank, and funny documentary following one of Newton’s more extreme scientific experiments. The play opens with Newton’s juvenile attempts to enter the Royal Society (the first step on his well wrought plans to receive commissions to study, become a Trinity Fellow, and gain scientific immortality), landing on a conflict between Newton and senior member of the Royal Society, Robert Hooke, and coming to focus on the ‘light is waves’ vs. ‘light is particles’ debate.

Our narrator, described in the programme as ‘the actor’ (Alex Grieg), is tasked with holding the voice of truth in the work, bounding from one side of the stage to the other armed with chalk, confirming which of the dialogue is fact and which is fiction by committing it to the wall. Isaac Newton (Andrew Paterson), flicking from sardonic and manipulative to chirpy and camp, holds the energy of the piece through and through. His performance, full of calculated lightness, portrays a fiercely intelligent Newton on the path to becoming as unfeeling and unempathetic as Hooke. To provide sufficient foil for Newton, Hooke should suggest some of the pulling power of the royal society but, played by Todd Rippon as a villainous megalomaniac, he comes off as just as immature as Newton but without the charm. As driven and direct men of science, Newton and Hooke have a frivolous relationship with the one female character in the play, the long suffering apothecary Catherine. Neenah Dekkers-Reihana brought a dignity to the much mistreated Catherine, but lacked a world-weariness of a 35-year-old ready to settle down living with a scattered 25-year-old Newton.

The final image sees Newton onstage dwarfed by a world clouded in chalk dust. This is the first time Newton has seemed small all play amidst the dense and unknown mist of the physical world that surrounds him, speaking volumes about the way we approach understanding the world around us.

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img_pitmanpaintersBy Lee Hall; Directed by Ross Jolly
Inspired by a book by William Feaver
Circa Theatre, Wellington | October 4-November 8

What makes art art” is the question at the centre of Circa One’s current offering, The Pitman Painters. An inspiring true story penned by Lee Hall (of Billy Elliot fame), The Pitman Painters follow a group of coal miners who take an introductory art appreciation class. When they don’t immediately respond to the traditional mode of appreciation (commenting on slides of paintings), their teacher Robert Lyon (Gavin Rutherford) opts for an applied approach. The group of five amateur artists discover painting doesn’t just improve their art appreciation, but also allows them to explore their own lives and experiences on canvas. When their work captures the eye of acclaimed collector Helen Sutherland (Catherine Downes), they’re brought into contact with the realities of the commercial art world.

The true story behind the play, apparently hardly embellished on stage, is pretty compelling stuff, the classic underdog story (think The Full Monty with paint). The play also raises questions about taste and trends in the visual art industry. And it’s well told by the cast. It is wonderful to see the performers in Circa One actually having a bit of fun. At its best the whole company perform with charm and bright eyed wit, helping to support the lithe and dexterous banter of Hall’s writing.

As an aside: like last year’s Rita and Angus and Red also at Circa, we see plays using the theatre to talk about visual art, and I find using theatre spaces to hold these layman questions or demystify other art forms curious. I suppose talking about innovation of other forms in rather traditional theatre pieces highlights the irony of the assumptions we see about what theatre has the potential to do.

Filed under: ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts


Samuel Phillips is the Wellington theatre editor for The Lumière Reader. When he isn’t reviewing theatre he can be found making theatre with Wellington-based company, Bright Orange Walls, or studying at Victoria University of Wellington.