The Earthworks combines romance with quantum theory
In 2015, writer Tom Morton-Smith took on the father of the atomic age with his hit play Oppenheimer, an epic biography of the obsessive and tormented scientist, which eventually transferred from the Royal Shakespeare Company to London’s West End. He returns to Stratford-upon-Avon for the RSC’s Midsummer Mischief season of new work, bringing a one-act play set at another turning point for particle physics, the first activation of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva, Switzerland.
The Earthworks, presented in a double bill with Matt Hartley and Kirsty Housley’s deconstructed dinner-party drama Myth, is a tentative romance played against a field of quantum theory: a kind of Lost in Translation for the Higgs boson generation.
Rather than thrusting us into the bowels of the machine or the centre of the action, Morton-Smith focuses on a more human collision, between jobbing blogger Clare and Norwegian physicist Fritjof as they maraud around a Swiss hotel in the dead of night. While the story beats are not especially original, the concepts, and their resonance for this tale of loss and healing, are fascinating.
Clare is something of a newbie when it comes to the groundbreaking work of CERN. She’s searching for a scoop, but can’t wrap her head around the science. This gives Fritjof the opportunity to expound on the significance of what Clare insists on referring to as “the God particle“, providing some handy background on elementary particles, the “standard model“, Peter Higgs, and the role of the largest machine ever created.
As Clare and Fritjof deliver some classroom demonstrations of non-Newtonian fluids via a midnight custard fight in the hotel kitchen, Fritjof slowly unwinds his own story of love and loss. Even as we glimpse the role of the Higgs boson in explaining why particles have mass, we begin to appreciate the weight of the physicist’s own memories and regrets.
More fascinating – though less scientifically or dramatically rigorous – is Morton-Smith’s exploration of “slow glass”, a fictitious transparent material with massively complex refractive properties that effectively slow down the speed at which light passes through it. Slow glass made its first appearance in a short science-fiction story by Bob Shaw, “Lights of Other Days” (1966), where it was used as a metaphor for the impossibility of recapturing the past.
Morton-Smith plays his own unique riff on Shaw’s story, and the glass itself is a fascinating object – iPad-black but glowing with deep and dappled green light. Though Fritjof’s story of this priceless experimental material being used to tile his living room is a tad implausible, and never quite achieves the pathos of Shaw’s original tale, it’s a witty and moving update of an irresistible idea.
Thomas Magnussen is pleasingly dry as Fritjof, his coolness gradually tempered by booze and the chatty Clare, played on just the right side of irritating by Lena Kaur. There’s also great work from Rebecca Humphries as hotel concierge Herta, whose implacable application of rules, initially played for laughs, comes to signify the unalterable laws of action and reaction, and the impossibility of evading consequence, no matter how long we stare into the past with our magical mirrors.
The Earthworks runs at The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 17 June