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ear to the edge of time: humanity in the space between the data

EAR TO THE EDGE OF TIME. Production images – Kate Williams

Echoes of school? Of P&F meetings where a quick scan of the agenda sees the acronym STEM leap at you and you know, you just know, that the Arts are going to get screwed.  Not here.  EAR TO THE EDGE OF TIME is STEAM storytelling, meticulously researched, rigorously interrogated and crafted with a Whovian blend of art and science and contemporary philosophy.  With a narrative inspired by real events and gender inequality in the hardsciences as the imperative,  Sport for Jove, director Nadia Tass and writer Alana Valentine have constructed an engrossing and relevant treatise about humanity’s relationship to the scholarship of factual and creative disciplines.

Martina is a PhD candidate working in the field of neutron star physics.  Enter Daniel, a poet.  These two have been buffeted together by invisible forces.  They have separately accepted an offer to collaborate on a poem for a collection inspired by the sciences.  The project is driven by Physicist Prof Geraldine Kell-Cantrell and Daniel has travelled to Parkes and Ubered out to the dish to meet with Martina.   Making first contact is not going to be easy as she squawks her reluctance to leave her work in the dark:  a revelatory discovery is within her grasp and her supervisor, Steven, is not one to interfere.  Not actively anyway.

Gabrielle Scawthorn gives a beautifully grown performance here, rich and warm and relatable.  Balancing age and enthusiasm she begins in freedom of movement and wide armed expressiveness.  Often leaning slightly back with an angle to the sky, she is all arms and restless feet.  Early on there’s a speech, superbly undidactic, which clues in the audience to the science on which she is working and the passion flows out through her choice of gesture.  Later, when her moment of discovery has been euchred and maturity is forced upon her, Scawthorn compacts her creation.  Pulling her arms in militarily or imprisoning them behind her back, the discipline and loss of youth is telling.  And terribly sad.

In contrast with Martina’s struggle against loss of agency is the indefatigability of creative spirit in Tim Walter’s Daniel.  His similarly moderated performance underplays the dramatic and foregrounds the seeker.  There’s a genuineness to his inclusive exultation and a robustness to his strength of belief in the power of words which colours every interaction.  In one scene, his despair is as moving as hers and the empathic pull on the audience is superbly evoked by director Nadia Tass.

There’s a freedom in Tass’ physical and rhythmic direction of EAR TO THE EDGE OF TIME which allows an audience to expand and contract their interactions with the subject.  Celestial and corporeal, emotional and rational, professional and personal it is the story that appeals as paramount.  The narrative grounds the viewer, so that when our inquiring selves take flight into the implications of what we see, there is a safe place to return.  An earth of complex, yet knowable, characters whose actions and behaviour is understandable, if not always easily acceptable.

Like Christopher Stollery’s endowment of his character of Steven with an old fashioned maleness.  His spring pull AAA pass indicative of the droit du seigneur and noblesse oblige at war within his privilege.  Certain privileges, too, vie for expression in Belinda Giblin’s veteran physicist Kell-Cantrell.  Capable of using her underdog status yet with a throughline of female solidarity and a rising contra mundum, her self-knowledge is so expertly underscored in the performance.

The text of AN EAR TO THE EDGE OF TIME is accessible and dynamic.  The Science is never TedTalked and the thematic discourse around women and their careers and their choices for action is multifaceted and thought-provoking.   It has a light, comic touch at the start which pops up unexpectedly as the themes close in.  In the same way as a year 6 kid doesn’t need to understand every word of Shakespeare to fall in love with the witches, an audience gets the science, gets what it means to the characters and is gifted with a guide in Daniel.  As his working knowledge of how data is collected drives his creativity we travel the long road with him.

Valentine’s work is seldom merely narrative and one of the brilliant standalone sequences here involves a tightly scripted moment which meta-layers manifestation with creation.  The poet and a sounding board consider how art is made, the forces which shape it and the personalities which bring it whole.  The logic, the process, is in the dialogue but the passion is in the heartbeat behind.

The audio (Dan Nixon)  in this production is as vast and yet discrete as the ideas.  With hits of grandfather clock chimes hidden in the score and long drawn bow notes of violin screech electronica conflicting with bass that surrounds and vibrates.  Swooped in also are state setting effects such as satellite bips and bush evocations as we feel the isolation of the Parkes Radio Telescope.

Stunningly well created, the precision of the welds thrilling for a stagey like me, the setting consists of a half perceived dishlike arrangement hung celestially above their heads.  With a few chairs and a scrim-like mirror, the focus remains with the characters, the people, no matter how small their lives. (Set Design: Shaun Gurton).  Designer David Parker uses his lighting to tardis the space, shrinking it down to intimate, throwing shadows forward, or expanding the black box to infinity. The smallness of humans, the greatness of human endeavour are in the shaping and in the delicate use of colour he avoids pulling focus from the beauty of the images.  I especially loved the slight chill of the light violet in Martina’s grief.

The visual effects are restrained in their beauty. At times breathtakingly immersive.  The data immersion sequence, for example, is curated with technical distinction.  Other times the video is subtly scene setting.  We are treated to the awe of cosmos, swirling oil on water redolent space or fluffy above the cumulus, and then plunked in front of a usual angled city building or set of stairs.  And there are animations which recur to elucidate the emotional and thematic root and branch of events.  The choice of image for “individuals make up the whole” unashamedly engendering pride in the individuality of each theatregoer.

Sydney theatre sometimes feels awash with ‘World Premieres’ but EAR TO THE EDGE OF TIME is the real deal.  Home grown excellence for a world stage, the text has already been internationally awarded and this production is manifestly ground-breaking in both the untold story and the exhortation towards better.

Agitate for keeping the arts alive in schools while raising funds for test tubes and the dress up box and take your mathematical daughter, take your literary son to this production.

EAR TO THE EDGE OF TIME from Sport for Jove [Facebook] continues at the Seymour Centre [Facebook] until October 27.

 

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