David Williamson (left) with fellow playwright Michael Gow. Photo: Deanne Scott
Opening on October 6 and running through to November 3, Nearer the Gods is a true story about how the greatest advance in human knowledge almost never happened. “Edmund Halley of Halley’s Comet fame realised that Isaac Newton was the only man in the world brilliant enough to crack the mystery of gravitation, but there was a problem. Newton was unhinged by delusions of grandeur and an implacable hatred of his nemesis Robert Hooke. Halley and his wife Mary had to find a way to coax him back to the main game,” said playwright, David Williamson.
Genius, bastardry, and heroism. These are the three words Williamson uses to describe Nearer the Gods. Strong has cast some of the best actors in the country in Matthew Backer (Switzerland) who plays Edmund Halley, William McInnes (Sea Change, Time of our Lives) who will play King Charles II, and Rhys Muldoon (House Husbands) who plays Isaac Newton.
Daniel Murphy will play Isaac Barrow and Samuel Pepys, with Hugh Parker (The 39 Steps) playing Sir Christopher Wren. Colin Smith (An Octoroon, Twelfth Night) plays Robert Hooke, Lucas Stibbard (Hoges, Wanted) plays John Wickens and Simon, with fellow Queenslander Hsiao-Ling Tang (Rice) playing Joane and Royal Equerry, and Kimie Tsukakoshi (The Family Law, Secret City) as Mary Halley.
Williamson said the play had been in the back of his mind since his University days. “I was the first mechanical engineering graduate from Monash University and Newton’s laws were the foundation of everything we learned, and I was astounded and awed at how one man took us from total ignorance of the laws of the universe to an almost complete understanding in one giant leap. One of the truly great geniuses of all time.
“But when I started researching him I found to my amazement that but for Edmund Halley, who drew him back from delusions that God had chosen him to reveal his plan for humankind, to solving the problem that no one else could, mankind’s single most significant leap forward in knowledge may never have happened. My playwright’s instinct was what a great story. Everything in the play, based on a great amount of research, either happened or could have happened. The actual sources are sparse, so some conjecture was necessary. Nothing to my knowledge is not plausible.”
He said it was also a story about the dynamics of human nature. “This is a fascinating and blackly funny study of how the deep and ancient emotional impulses urging us to attain power, and status, and to belittle and vanquish our rivals, can be at odds with our advanced capacity for logical reason. You see the opposing forces at work every day in the jugular political and business worlds,” he said.
Queensland Theatre Artistic Director and Director of Nearer the Gods Sam Strong, said he was incredibly proud to be opening the new Bille Brown Theatre with the latest play by Australia’s most loved playwright. “For nearly half a century, David has reflected contemporary Australian society back to itself, entertaining and challenging audiences with his peerless observation of human behaviour. In Nearer the Gods, David has taken an epochal moment in history and brought it vividly to life – capturing the energy of the discovery of something we now take for granted. Even more than that, he has zeroed in on the human drama underlying the science,” said Strong.
“David uses this fascinating historical moment to tell an urgent story about how even the noblest ideas are not above corruption by our baser instincts. The opening of the New Bille Brown Theatre is an epochal moment in the history of Queensland Theatre so it’s fitting that we open it with Nearer the Gods.
“Australia’s newest theatre will have the best actor-audience relationship in the country and Brisbane’s famously responsive audiences will now be closer to the performers and a more active part of the experience than ever before. Finally, we’ve assembled a top shelf cast who are relishing David’s instinct for comedy and drama as well as the chance to bring some of history’s biggest characters and grandest ideas to life.”
The story: It’s 1684, the dawn of the Enlightenment. Bright young astronomer Edmund Halley must somehow wrangle the secrets of the universe from the brain of fickle and contrary Isaac Newton. At the same time, he must wrestle with his faith and risk his home, family and reputation to find the money and means to share this beautiful, powerful theory with the world at large. For all the celestial bodies and scientific laws named after them, it’s easy to think of our 17th century giants of science as infallible geniuses. But here are our most powerful minds laid bare: riddled with self-doubt, squabbling over fame, and ensconced in bitter intellectual rivalries.
Nearer the Gods by David Williamson, directed by Sam Strong
6 October to 3 November, Bille Brown Theatre, Queensland Theatre
Bookings: queenslandtheatre.com.au or by calling 1800 355 528