Pros: Immensely moving play, writing with a punch, and actors who live and breathe their roles.
Cons: If you don’t like long conversations where the point is not necessarily what is being spoken about, steer clear.
Terry Johnson’s 1982 play Insignificance features four iconic figures of the 1950s: professor, actress, sport star and senator, each notorious in their field. They are never named, but we know who they are; Einstein with his ‘tache and Monroe in ‘that white dress’ are pretty unmistakable. DiMaggio is easy if you know that he and Monroe were married and that he was a baseball player (the sport dominates his conversation). I had to remind myself who the senator (McCarthy) is, and I suppose this betrays my preference of popular culture over unpopular politics.
Each character is shadowed by their sadness: Monroe doubts that the world takes her seriously; Einstein feels guilt over the atomic bombs; DiMaggio craves a son his wife cannot give him; McCarthy is paranoid about Russia’s relationship with the USA and is after Einstein’s calculus papers.
Johnson’s play is invariably described as the one where Marilyn Monroe explains the theory of relativity to Albert Einstein in his hotel room. The meeting is imaginary; Einstein and Monroe did not (as far as anyone knows!) have this rendezvous in reality.
There are many sentiments in this play: the hollow worship of celebrity; that good intentions can end in disaster; that dreams become reality and then you’re stuck with them; that, ultimately, nothing matters. These might make for one long and depressive sorrow fest, but I, for one, find the sorrows uplifting.
Are not the greatest moments in life those of deep connection with others? Isn’t the difference between humans and every other creature on earth that we live with the knowledge that we are going to die? To live knowing this, and still get up every day and have thoughts like the general theory of relativity to show for it, to have science and art and theatre to sit and watch and consider – isn’t that worth living for?
Insignificance captivated me twelve years ago when I saw it at the Lyceum in Sheffield as an undergrad. It still captivates me. Johnson’s choice of characters is wise, and the actors in this production are all very visually and vocally powerful, living who they represent. The hotel room set so convincingly looked out on a New York City building fire escape that I (in my defence, only briefly) believed it to be a real window.
The laws of physics are the same for all non-accelerating observers, so it doesn’t matter if you’re a famous actress or a baseball superstar. There are basic ways in which we all are equal, and there’s no better place than the theatre to go to to dwell on this. The Arcola Theatre’s currently running Insignificance to make you feel like you’re one of many stars. Go.
Author: Terry Johnson
Director: David Mercatali
Design: Max Dorey
Booking Until: 18 November 2017
Booking Link: https://www.arcolatheatre.com/event/insignificance/