Newton’s Cauldron, Tim Foley’s latest play, tells the story of the downfall of magic and the rise of science in the 17th century from the perspective of Wendy and Wombat, two young witches. The play starts as Wendy recalls that Christmas Day of 1642, in which she prophesised the birth of Isaac Newton and the consequent end of the medieval world view, based on magic and the supernatural. We then follow the adventures of the two sisters as they try to prevent this epochal change from occurring.
The Catherine Club’s production develops the potential of the play well. The few items present on stage – a cauldron, a stool and a bookcase – create a warm and family-like atmosphere. The audience may feel as if they are in the narrator’s parlour for a friendly Sunday afternoon get-together. The venue, a small underground theater appropriately named “The Vault”, adds to this feeling. Anderson’s direction is neat, with careful attention to lighting, which helps the audience navigate between the present and past story lines.
Cara Mahoney as Wendy, and Emma Taylor as Wombat and young Newton’s granny, deliver two powerful and sparkling performances. Taylor’s rendering of the elder sister character is particularly lively and enjoyable: Wombat never falls into a stereotype. Mahoney expresses beautifully the feelings and emotions of both the young teenager Wendy and her older self, the narrator.
The main storyline, the downfall of magic, hides a second one, which intertwines with the first and becomes almost indistinguishable from it in the end: Wendy’s coming of age. As the 50-minute piece develops, Wendy becomes less and less dependent on her sister and the memory of their mother and is finally able to to decide for herself and choose her own way of life. In fact, it is not Newton who carries about the revolutionary change, but Wendy herself, as she becomes more and more fascinated by the new world view.
“Do not all charms fly at the mere touch of cold philosophy?” asked John Keats in Lamia, accusing science of having deprived men of wonder in front of the beauty of Nature. Wombat, who is trying to defend the old medieval view, certainly supports the Romantic poet. But Wendy’s answer is that the wonder does not disappear, but is changed and augmented by scientific knowledge, as her reaction to Newton’s prism experiment testifies. There is no doubt that, at the end, science triumphs, but in the last scene the audience is almost left to decide whether this victory is definitive or there is still a place for magic in our world.
Unfortunately, all the themes presented above are often only hinted at and never quite analyzed and developed in full by the author. The piece is certainly witty and enjoyable, with numerous funny jokes and references to fairy tale classics such as Snow White, but it feels a bit like a play for children. The adult audience leaves the theater amused and smiling, but a bit unsatisfied by a play that promised to be “a dark comedy about the battle of progress.” Nonetheless, my verdict is undoubtedly positive: although not a profound investigation of the problem of science and magic, Newton’s Cauldron is a witty and enjoyable play, performed by a charming duo of St Andrews students.
Catch Newton’s Cauldron at the Paradise in the Vault until 17 August 17 at 5:45 pm.