Evolving a Scientific Performance
In Praise of Darwin’s Mistakes is the first part of The Weather Man triple bill, to be premiered at Theatre Severn on the 11th of July, as part of the Shift-Time Festival.
Written by Arjen Mulder (on the right in the photo), an Amsterdam-based essayist, lecturer and media theorist with a background in biology, it will be performed by Geoffrey Streatfield (left), who is an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The piece is directed by Maggie Love.
I met up with them in the Lion Room of the Lion Hotel, in Shrewsbury this afternoon. I had arrived in just time to hear the last few minutes of the rehearsal, and I was very impressed indeed. When I had been told that the lecture was to be read by an actor, I had been very doubtful – would this be a way of dumbing-down the science, of adding ‘entertainment value’, making the audience ‘feel’ instead of making them think? When I was given an advance copy of Arjen Mulder’s script, I was more hopeful – there was plenty of thought-provoking material in it – and when I heard Geoffrey Streatfield reading the words, and saw him working with Maggie and Arjen on how to bring them to life, I realised that this was going to be something very good indeed.
I asked Arjen how he’d felt about having someone else reading his work?
“When Anna Douglas asked me ‘Can we use an actor?’ I had no idea what it would be like. And it has been very strange hearing it like this, for the first time, and thinking: Oh, that’s my piece. but it’s come to life in a different way.”
Had he adapted his writing style?
“Well, of course I would normally be writing in Dutch!” He laughed. “But if I was giving a lecture I would not write everything down exactly beforehand. I would make many notes and I would have my slides – the typical lecture style. But for this I had to write down every word, and that made me think more carefully about the words and how it would sound.”
I commented on how well-written the piece was, and asked Arjan if it was originally in Dutch?
“No, I wrote it in English. But all thanks to Laura Marsh who edited it. Not to change any of the concepts, or any of the arguments, but to make the language strong.”
Geoffrey Streatfield added: “And because it is so well-written, it is actually quite dynamic as a performance piece. It is engaging. And it manages to open up the world of evolutionary theory. Most importantly, is is something that you can feel passionate about. I like that it’s more about the modern understanding of what Darwin’s work was, rather than something that just exists ‘in history’; that you have the history mirrored by what contemporary thinking on evolution is.”
Had Geoffrey learnt something about evolution from reading the script?
“Oh yes, I’ve learnt a lot. For instance, that the cells in a kidney have the same genes as all the rest of a body. It’s all in there. I didn’t know that.
“What I find too is that every time I’ve read it, something else has come out. Which is normally the test of something that’s interesting. That’s why it’s such fun doing Shakespeare, because you can do it every day for a thousand years and still engage your imagination. Every time I’ve gone through this piece today, different things have emerged. The significance of different discoveries. It starts meaning different things. And because it’s directly related to our own lives, to our own bodies, it’s not just an abstract. It’s about us.
Maggie Love, the director, is also the Darwin Community Arts Fund Co-ordinator. She mentioned that they had held a series of debates for schools before Christmas: on natural history, robotics and genetics. “And it was the genetics debates that raised the most questions from the students. That was the one that they got the most excited about.”
“Yes, biology is going very well at the moment, extremely well.” said Arjen. “Especially with genetics in the last twenty years. It’s getting more and more simple all the time — and far more complicated!
“Five hundred genes, that’s all you need, and four billion years. You can get evolution going. And then you can build all the rest.”
Geoffrey Streatfield laughed: “You just need some cells from a kidney, and anyone can get their hands on that!”
The triple bill: In Praise of Darwin’s Mistakes along with Follow the Voice, a film by Marcus Coates, and the Opera North production The Weather Man, at Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury. 7.30pm, Saturday 11th July. Tickets £15.00, concessions £12.00. Box office: 01743 281281, www.theatresevern.co.uk
I’m really looking forward to Saturday’s premiere performance, and will report on it in due course. After Shrewsbury, the triple bill will be at The Sage in Gateshead on 15th July www.thesagegateshead.org and the Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on 17th and 18th. www.howardassemblyroom.co.uk