Pro’s: Harrison’s original musical script and the passionate performances by the six-strong all female cast
Con’s: The scientific jargon-filled dialogues can be confusing, particularly if you are not versed in chemistry
The road to hell, said St Bernard of Clairvaux, is paved with good intentions. And there’s no lack of good intentions in the characters of Tony Harrison’s Square Rounds. The problem is that their motives are short-sighted, often spurred on by grandiose egos, and almost always helping the interests of war.
This curious play, with lots of chemistry, revolves around the lives of five men and a woman: Justus von Liebig (Eva Feiler), Sir William Crookes (Rujenne Green), Sir Hiram Maxim (Letty Thomas) and his brother Hudson (Amy Marchant), Fritz Haber (Philippa Queen) and Clara Immerwahr (Gracy Goldman). For good or for bad, their contributions to science had a massive impact.
In Square Rounds, chemistry develops in a matter of decades from being the science that gave us materials so essential to agriculture as fertilisers to the inventions that led to lethal agents like chlorine or mustard gas. But it is also made clear that the problem is not in the science itself, an objective source of progress, but in what men do with it.
The play begins with Justus von Liebig, the “father of the fertiliser industry”, and ends with Fritz Haber, the “father of chemical warfare”. Clara Immerwahr, Haber’s wife, was also a brilliant chemist, and saw clearly how her husband’s work on would become: weapons of mass destruction.
Haber very naively tells Clara that the use of his poisonous gases in the war would give soldiers the “opportunity” of a “sweet death” by gas, rather than being blown to pieces by a bomb. Entire bodies could be identified by mourning mothers, he adds.
In his man’s world, war is not an option but a given imperative, and the best you can do is choose how to kill. For Clara and the many women who suffered the consequences of what was going on at the front, this horrific view is unacceptable and must be fought against.
Harrison’s script is clever and original, composed of amusing rhymes, whimsical verses and odd songs. Although they provide a source of laughter in what is not by any means a comic topic, the pantomime elements reinforce the absurdity of wars and the petty male interests behind them. The absurdity of the first part gives way to a more sober and dooming development during the second half of the show.
I found the dialogue confusing at times, but the the other elements in the play – lighting, footage projection, sound, costumes – are truly entertaining, and complement the story well.
The real strength lies in the performances by the six-strong female cast, who bring these troubled characters to life with passion and chemistry.
Written by: Tony Harrison
Directed by: Jimmy Walters
Produceed by: Finborough Theatre
Box Office: 01223 357 851
Booking Link: https://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2018/square-rounds.php
Booking Until: 29th September 2018