Atlas

Fri 4th – Sat 19th August 2017

reviews

Kathryn Tann

at 01:29 on 8th Aug 2017

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‘Atlas’ was intimate from the beginning, as I found myself stepping around cast members already in character and engrossed in chalking away on laid out boards, in order to reach my seat on the other side of the stage. It was clear that there was attention to detail here. The actors continued to scribble, appearing to know exactly what they were doing, and the same clever device was used throughout the play in order for the ensemble to be able to remain onstage, even during the scenes they were not a part of. The boards did, however, take up rather a lot of space, making the already small stage look a little cramped and scruffy.

With a small venue and audience on three sides of the stage, the atmosphere was cosy and familiar. This also meant that as the play wound on and relationships soured, we as the audience felt keenly the powerful emotions and uncomfortable tension being thrown around between characters.

It soon became clear that the writers of ‘Atlas’ (twins Jared and Noah Liebmiller) knew their subject well. The impressive script is heavy with scientific language, but the formality of much of the dialogue did cause the occasional passage to lose its momentum. It often felt as though this over-decorous style was trying hard to date the play accordingly, and as a result taking away slightly from the sincerity of the play.

All four actors did a sterling job of bringing this challenging story of scientific discovery and debate to life, but it was Lydia Seed who stood out that extra bit more for me. Her interpretation of Sir Isaac Newton was dynamic yet consistent, and worked brilliantly against the over-bearing self-assuredness of Eleanor Burke’s Robert Hooke. Hooke was successful in that she made the character of Hooke wholly detestable, as the script intended. And yet, I couldn’t quite tell whether it was the character I was feeling irritated with at times, or the exaggerated way in which Burke spoke and strutted. Either way, the effect was that I felt emotionally involved in the outcome of the wager. No character invoked particular warmth (they all had their pitfalls, such as Wren’s cowardice), but I imagine all audience members were rooting for the honest Newton over the disney-like villain Hooke.

Though I wasn’t entirely fond of the costume choices, ‘Atlas’ is a student piece, and it is the attention to detail previously mentioned which more effectively rounded the production off. For instance, the accumulating smudges of chalk on the actors’ trousers, caused by kneeling and scrawling, did well to add to the historic setting of the frantic intellectuals.

Overall, though the production may not have been completely perfect, the concept is impressive, exploring the darker sides of friendship, rivalry, and the ruthless hierarchy of masculine science. ‘Atlas’, though set in 1684, is relevant, thought provoking, and very well executed.

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Ruby Gilding

at 08:49 on 8th Aug 2017

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Set amidst the feverous atmosphere of the recently formed Royal Society, ‘Atlas’ was historical fiction at its boldest. The drama was spun from the relationships between four luminaries of science: Robert Hooke, Edmund Halley, Christopher Wren and an unknown Isaac Newton. Writers Jared and Noah Liebmiller take a single moment in history, the making of a friendly wager, and reimagine the consequent fallout as friendships unravel and characters sour. This is a rich concept for a show; one which has created an anticipatory buzz on the Edinburgh scene, as the nearly full auditorium testified.

In an artful staging, a board was placed in each corner of the stage over which the actors would periodically crouch, punctuating the performance with the scratching of chalk diagrams. This was an intelligent directorial decision as the actors were all present for the majority of the performance, with just basic lighting changes to cue scenes. Such considered simplicity was also evident in the performer’s appearances. Their tasteful costumes were a measured balance of modern and period dress drawn together by a monochrome palette.

Benji Osugo cut a particularly striking figure as Halley. His execution was controlled and frequently established the appropriate register for dialogue with the other characters. This was complemented by Lydia Seed’s deliciously neurotic Newton. Seed is a stand out actor; she brought intensity and finesse to a play which could at times run away with itself. Eleanor Burke’s Robert Hooke was also acted with commitment. There was a faintly predatory tone to the manner in which she drew out her words whilst stalking the stage. However, Burke was not able to show variation in her performance as, frustratingly, the character’s tone never broke. This was either a fault of the writing or the biographical material. If Hooke was portrayed as an obsessive, egoistic scholar throughout, then Christopher Wren was a rakish, self-congratulating joker. As a character, Wren did not exact the same weight in the show as Hooke, Newton and Halley did; he lent little to the performance beyond a few predictable laughs which was compounded by an indulgent delivery.

This criticism could be levelled at the writing tone itself which fully exploited the language of natural philosophy - to the extent that certain moments tipped beyond the poetic to the fanciful. The writing duo do exhibit potential, for example, one particular speech considers how a small band of outsiders must guard the ‘fires of knowledge’ for future ‘giants’ and favourably recalled a Tom Stoppard monologue on the ‘march of knowledge.’ ‘Atlas’s aspirations were admirable, but what is a promising concept was at times undercut by its own writing.

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