>THE PHYSICISTS by luna-id

>reviewed by fong li ling

>date: 28 oct 2004
>time: 8pm
>venue: dbs arts centre
>rating: ****

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


Since its stunning debut four years ago with 'Eleemosynary', luna-id has been churning out performances that have earned themselves rave reviews. This year alone, both its plays (before this one, of course) have been rewarded with many appreciative comments. And THE PHYSICISTS will not prove an exception.

Produced in conjunction with this year's Swiss Festival, THE PHYSICISTS is written by Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt and tells the story of three men living in a madhouse who claim to be, needless to say, physicists. One thinks he is Sir Isaac Newton, another Professor Albert Einstein and the last actually is Johann Wilhelm Mobius, a scientist who claims to see visions of King Solomon.

The play begins with the murder of a nurse committed by Einstein. Oh, I beg your pardon, I mean an "accident" (one must not call them murders when mental patients are involved, warns the chief doctor), and the "assailant" was Einstein. This is already the second "accident" that has taken place in three months, since Newton "assailed" his nurse. Tensions are running high in the public prosecutor's office - they are upset with the sanatorium for not keeping the patients in check - and three months later, we surely enough see a third nurse strangled, this time by Mobius. Yet as the story unfolds, the insanity of the three men becomes rather doubtful, despite their killings.

In the second act, the audience begins to see the light. Newton and Einstein reveal their true real identities to Mobius as Alex Jaspar Kilton and Joseph Eisler respectively, and it comes as no surprise that they are physicists too. Both work for their own respective secret services, both read a dissertation Mobius wrote some fifteen years ago and both realised the nature of his genius and wanted to get hold of his latest theories, hence they infiltrated the madhouse. Mobius resists them and hides behind his feigned madness, fearing the impact his findings could have on the world.

>>'The flyer for the production says "ingenious and amusing" and "deliciously mind boggling". Indeed. And very, may I add.'

THE PHYSICISTS explores strong themes like Man's greed for power and recognition, the fatal effects of finding out an earth-shattering scientific theory and even throws in some gender politics. All of these reflect in the play's many ironies. For example, Mobius proposes that to be "free", the physicists have to be prisoners in the madhouse, because they took fewer lives inside than they would have indirectly taken if released. Other comic little ironies abound, such as how patients are permitted to smoke in the asylum but not the police inspector is not because "it would stink the place out".

The highly complex characters of Newton, Einstein and Mobius were no easy feat to portray, but the actors took them on with conviction. It was a pity, though, that Sonny Lim's portrayal of Einstein paled in comparison to Daniel Jenkins' Newton and Michael Corbidge's Mobius. The Brits possessed a very powerful stage presence which Lim was unable to measure up to. And there were other problems, too... In a scene late in the second act, the three men confront each other around a light bulb which provides the only light on stage. As Mobius explains in an extended monologue why they cannot leave, Newton and Einstein are left with nothing to do. At this point, Lim seemed lost. He kept his head down, looking around him and occasionally at his hands, away from the light. That scene made Lim look particularly weak, especially opposite Jenkins, who faced the light, and whose facial reactions the audience could clearly see.

Of course, the above could have been a problem with Samantha Scott-Blackhall's direction and, if so, it would not have been the only one. The set for the first act created a narrow space for the actors to work with (they were only able to move across the breadth of the stage and had no depth at all to explore) and I had difficulty seeing the faces of Leigh McDonald and Claire Devine who acted as Mobius' divorced wife and his nurse, Monika Stettler, respectively. Presumably they should have been moved around more so that everyone in the audience would have had a chance to see them. Nonetheless, I have to commend Sebastian Zeng for the creative transformation of the set from the first to the second act. The abrupt destruction of the false front of the sanatorium to reveal the darkness behind effectively prefigured the revelations that the second act would bring.

One final twist came in the closing moments of the play, when Sandy Philips, the doctor in charge of the sanatorium, came out of the closet and declared to the three physicists that she had Mobius' theories and their duplicates in her hands. Absurdly, she claimed that King Solomon appeared before her because Mobius had betrayed the Golden King's dictates by burying the "Principle of Universal Discovery", which Solomon had decreed Mobius must proclaim to the world. Hidden beneath a barren, hunch-backed, uneven-legged psychiatrist, was an insane woman, greedy for power. And Sandy Philips did a laudable job playing her.

Looking back, I especially like the production's directorial touches - the places where Scott-Blackhall was really on form. I like the silent patient who sat at the side of the stage throughout Act One, representative of an omniscient character, a madman who exposed the madness of the others by pushing down the vertical set and uncovering the prison behind the pretty facade of the sanatorium. I liked the sound (a la 'Stomp'), and the visual tricks (such as the cast striking matchsticks for light when Newton leads Mobius down a planned escape route) added interesting layers to the already plump storyline. The flyer for the production says "ingenious and amusing" and "deliciously mind boggling". Indeed. And very, may I add.