Student-written drama has a bad reputation. A stereotype of something ramshackle, self-indulgent and with poorly-designed, unfortunately, comes with the territory, and although they are often cheap to stage, they pose a significant financial risk because this stereotype weighs heavily on ticket sales. Atlas, this week’s Mermaids offering, had no such problem. This original play by Jared and Noah Liebmiller was slick, considered and unsurprisingly, a sell-out.
Having trodden the boards themselves in the likes of Doctor Faustus, Equus, Hot Mess and Cat on A Hot Tin Roof, the Liebmiller brothers’ foray into playwriting was much anticipated in the St Andrews theatre community, and while the atmosphere was one of support, I do not think that anybody was quite expecting what came. Atlas follows the machinations of some of the greatest minds of all time around a pivotal moment in Human History, the publication of Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (a seminal text in Western Science which forms the foundations for classical mechanics, postulates for the first time the notion of universal gravitation, derives Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, and other very important scientific stuff).
I cannot in good faith review this play without lauding, first and foremost, lighting and set designers Alice McDougall and Grace Cowie. Though the furniture for the play was conventional Barron stock, McDougall and Cowie’s designs raised this script to an entirely different level – elegant colour-mixing and angles in the LX, coupled with striking chalk-boards full of equations from classical mechanics, lent the text the cosmic resonance that it might otherwise have fallen short on when addressing such haughty issues. The master stroke here was in embellishing the Barron floor with a meticulously beautiful representation of the night sky as seen from a telescope on the night of the Principia’s publication. Well-considered, original, and quite simply, lovely.
Jared Liebmiller, as director, nurtured his cast towards largely credible performances, and the amity between Hooke (Emily Hoyle), Halle (Olli Gilford), and Wren (Jonathan Hewitt) was absolutely believable – this friendship was crucial to the play’s arc, and Liebmiller’s hard work paid off here, with the tragic collapse of this trio in the second act absolutely convincing the audience.
To praise Liebmiller alone, however, would be naïve – the work put in by all 5 members of the ensemble was evident, and performances across the board were sensitive and compelling. Olli Gilford, though immensely talented, was done a disservice with the density and overstatement in some of his monologues, which prevented him from being consistent in his subtlety throughout. Although the dialogue is natural, light-hearted and grave by equal turns, some minor editing would make the character of Halle considerably more pathetic.
Although her casting was a peculiar choice, making all too clear the absence of women in the source story, Emily Hoyle’s Robert Hooke was a stand-out performance – her arrogance and pain were measured and always human in their scale. This is the first time that I have seen Hoyle perform, and I am genuinely very, very excited to see what she does next.
An unfortunate drawback for this production was costuming. The choice to attempt period dress at all was somewhat inexplicable, given the non-period furniture and the more conceptual set design, and sadly the execution of these costuming decisions was a little distracting. An ill-fitting period jacket, and a blanket fashioned into a period silhouette with pins detracted a little from what was otherwise an aesthetically consistent and interesting show – they felt like unnecessary complications.
Atlas tackled huge ideas about how we conceptualise history, and about the human cost of blind ambition. Although there were aspects that would have benefited from a little simplification, there were excellent performances all-round, and an elegant, considered design. This is the sort of show that I should like to see in the Barron again and again.