Acid house Shakespeare: Sex, drugs and do-si-dos

I have never seen such a druggy, cannabis-hazed, acid-housed production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Meanwhile, Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones are failing to earn a standing ovation for their Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.

Could Michael Grandage’s exposition of A Midsummer Night’s Dream derive from a misreading of a single line? When Oberon asks Titania to “take hands with me/And rock the ground whereon these sleepers be”, Shakespeare intends a dance so gentle that it will rock the mortals to sleep, as in a cradle. This Dream (runs until 16 November), however, is a rock opera, with pumping pop music, festivalgoers stripped to their underpants, and whole lot of loving goin’ on under the most dilated of full moons.

Obviously the forest police have announced an amnesty on narcotics for the summer solstice. Although the play’s whole plot rests on opiates – the juices of a “little western flower” being sprinkled on Titania and Lysander – I have never seen such a druggy, cannabis-hazed, acid-housed production of this comedy.

The conceit works beautifully well but the play was almost bound to succeed in any case, thanks, as it were, to its “dream” cast. They consistently surprise. Pádraic Delaney is an unashamedly Irish Theseus but returns as Oberon, looking and sounding like a public school-educated Russell Brand. Sheridan Smith, who once said she had a “common face”, starts off dead classy as Hippolyta, with a tight blonde perm, a Thirties wool suit and a clipped, Anna Neagle accent. As Titania, she’s a punk vamp, a Toyah Willcox with work at the rougher kind of cowboy bar on her CV (she can toss a leg over the rail of a spiral suitcase as impressively as Mae West).

Thanks to her TV work as Mrs Biggs and on Jonathan Creek, Smith is a box-office draw. Even more so is David Walliams, who does a lovely, deep-voiced, overeager Bottom, with a habit of dripping his outstretched hand slowly down the faces of his fellow amateur comedians. He makes an aria in many registers out of his death throes in the rude mechanicals’ play, ending them by pressing Thisbe into his groin, fellatio ad absurdum. Funnily enough, though, the actor I enjoyed most was Katherine Kingsley as a sexually aggressive and self-dramatising Helena. Such a danger is she that Demetrius (a buff Stefano Braschi) has to prise her legs together during one attempted female-on-male rape.

The play’s usually interminable first scene passed in about five minutes. After an early interval, we resumed at Act III, Scene Two with Puck’s summary of the action. Given his willingness to dress Walliams in Up Pompeii gear to get a laugh out of his resemblance to Frankie Howerd, I wondered if Grandage considered prefacing this recap with “Previously . . .”. Although the period details skid between 1930 and 1990, this is a version directly aimed at 2013 attention spans.

Grandage’s production may have psychedelic inspirations, but the director’s great gift to Shakespeare, and to us, is to make him line for line, and plotline by plotline, completely clear. There is a risk, particularly with this play, that by doing so, more elusive magic evaporates, and yet so much is gained by clarity. For one thing, you get the jokes.

Over the river at the Old Vic something else extraordinary is happening. Vanessa Redgrave, 76, and James Earl Jones, 82, are failing to earn a standing ovation for their Beatrice and Benedick in Mark Rylance’s Much Ado About Nothing (runs until 30 November). In many ways this is an admirable production. Rylance relocates the action from Renaissance Messina in Sicily to 1944 and Home Counties England, where an airbase is welcoming home an all-black USAF squadron, over here and, after the deprivations of war, oversexed. The nightwatch becomes an elderly Dad’s Army home guard, augmented by Boy Scouts and led by the terrific Peter Wright as one of theatrical history’s few tolerably funny Dogberrys (he is even better playing the Friar).

However. People come to Much Ado for Beatrice and Benedick, the prototypes of every romcom couple who start out hating and end in lurv. Here, our enjoyment is jeopardised by a terrible anxiety that they will forget their lines. On the first night, after some touch-and-go moments, my feeling was merely of relief that they had got through it.

Redgrave looks great, shirted and trousered like a land girl. She has a conversational way with Shakespeare that still works but it is a low-key, autumnal performance and Beatrice’s change from merriment to seriousness is not really marked. Jones, whose fine baritone voice has become muffled with age, speaks many of his great speeches sitting down, and at dictation speed. These two, so well paired a few years ago in Driving Miss Daisy, invent a whole delivery style – ponderous repartee.

Yet what’s most annoying is that the production makes no particular point of the casting. When Benedick concludes that the world must be peopled this surely is the moment for a sly, sarcastic tilt at his future girlfriend’s age. But nothing is made of it. Leonato customarily refers to Beatrice as “niece”. Could Michael Elwyn not put some spin on that? There is much to be said for colour-blind casting. Age-blind, not so much.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing are playing at the Noël Coward Theatre, London WC2 and the Old Vic, London SE1

Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, so well paired in Driving Miss Daisy, are failing to earn a standing ovation. Image: Getty

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 07 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The last days of Nelson Mandela

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Has this physicist found the key to reality?

Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. So what to make of Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli?

Albert Einstein knew the truth. “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” However good we are at maths – or theoretical physics – our efforts to apply it to the real world are always going to mislead. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that reality is not what it seems – even when, like the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, you’ve done the maths.

It is a lesson we could certainly learn from the history of science. Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. With the invention of the telescope, for instance, we found new structures in space; Jupiter’s moons and sunspots were just the beginning. The microscope took us the other way and showed us the fine structure of the biological world – creatures that looked uninteresting to the naked eye turned out to be intricate and delicate, with scales and hooks and other minute features. We also once thought that the atom lacked structure; today’s technology, such as the particle colliders at the Cern research centre in Geneva and Fermilab in the United States, have allowed us to prove just how wrong that idea was. At every technological turn, we have redefined the nature of reality.

Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the technology to take the next step. The present challenge to physicists seeking to discover how things really are is to investigate our environment on a scale known as the “Planck length”. Rovelli tries to convey just how small this is. Imagine, he says, a walnut magnified until it is the size of the universe. If we were to magnify the Planck length by that much, we still couldn’t see it. “Even after having been enormously magnified thus, it would still be a million times smaller than the actual walnut shell was before magnification,” he tells us.

We simply cannot probe the universe at these scales using current methods, because it would require a particle accelerator the size of a small galaxy. So – for now, at least – our search for the nature of reality is in the hands of the mathematicians and theorists. And, as Einstein would tell us, that is far from ideal.

That is also doubly true when theoretical physicists are working with two highly successful, but entirely incompatible, theories of how the universe works. The first is general relativity, developed by Einstein over 100 years ago. This describes the universe on cosmic scales, and utterly undermines our intuition. Rovelli describes Einstein’s work as providing “a phantasmagorical succession of predictions that resemble the delirious ravings of a madman but which have all turned out to be true”.

In relativity, time is a mischievous sprite: there is no such thing as a universe-wide “now”, and movement through space makes once-reliable measures such as length and time intervals stretch and squeeze like putty in Einstein’s hands. Space and time are no longer the plain stage on which our lives play out: they are curved, with a geometry that depends on the mass and energy in any particular region. Worse, this curvature determines our movements. Falling because of gravity is in fact falling because of curves in space and time. Gravity is not so much a force as a geometric state of the universe.

The other troublesome theory is quantum mechanics, which describes the subatomic world. It, too, is a century old, and it has proved just as disorienting as relativity. As Rovelli puts it, quantum mechanics “reveals to us that, the more we look at the detail of the world, the less constant it is. The world is not made up of tiny pebbles, it is a world of vibrations, a continuous fluctuation, a microscopic swarming of fleeting micro-events.”

But here is the most disturbing point. Both of these theories are right, in the sense that their predictions have been borne out in countless experiments. And both must be wrong, too. We know that because they contradict one another, and because each fails to take the other into account when trying to explain how the universe works. “The two pillars of 20th-century physics – general relativity and quantum mechanics – could not be more different from each other,” Rovelli writes. “A university student attending lectures on general relativity in the morning, and others on quantum mechanics in the afternoon, might be forgiven for concluding that his professors are fools, or that they haven’t talked to each other for at least a century.”

Physicists are aware of the embarrassment here. Hence the effort to unite relativity and quantum mechanics in a theory of “quantum gravity” that describes reality at the Planck scale. It is a daunting task that was the undoing of both Einstein and his quantum counterpart Erwin Schrödinger. The two men spent the last years of their working lives trying to solve this problem, but failed to make any headway. Today’s physicists have some new ideas and mathematical intuitions, but they may also be heading towards a dead end. Not that we’ll find out for sure any time soon. If the history of science offers us a second lesson, it is that scientific progress is unbearably slow.

In the first third of his book, Rovelli presents a fascinating dissection of the history of our search for reality. The mathematical cosmology of Ptolemy, in which the Earth stood at the centre of the universe and the other heavenly bodies revolved around it, ruled for a thousand years. It was unfairly deposed: the calculations based on Copernicus’s sun-centred model “did not work much better than those of Ptolemy; in fact, in the end, they turned out to work less well”, the author observes.

It was the telescope that pushed us forward. Johannes Kepler’s painstaking obser­vations opened the door to the novel laws that accurately and succinctly described the planets’ orbits around the sun. “We are now in 1600,” Rovelli tells his readers, “and for the first time, humanity finds out how to do something better than what was done in Alexandria more than a thousand years earlier.”

Not that his version of history is perfect. “Experimental science begins with Galileo,” Rovelli declares – but there are any number of Renaissance and pre-Renaissance figures who would baulk at that claim. In the 12th century the Islamic scholar al-Khazini published a book full of experiments that he had used to test the theories of mechanics. The man who helped Galileo achieve his first academic position, Guidobaldo del Monte, also carried out many experiments, and possibly taught Galileo the craft.

It’s a small misjudgement. More ­irritating is Rovelli’s dismissal of any path towards quantum gravity but his own, a theory known as “loop quantum gravity”. He spends the last third of the book on explaining this idea, which he considers the “most promising” of all the assaults on the true ­nature of reality. He does not mention that he is in a minority here.

Most physicists pursuing quantum gravity give a different approach – string theory – greater chance of success, or at least of bearing useful fruit. String theory suggests that all the forces and particles in nature are the result of strings of energy vibrating in different ways. It is an unproven (and perhaps unprovable) hypothesis, but its mathematical innovations are nonetheless seeding interesting developments in many different areas of physics.

However, Rovelli is not impressed. He summarily dismisses the whole idea, characterising its objectives as “premature, given
current knowledge”. It’s a somewhat unbecoming attitude, especially when we have just spent so many pages celebrating millennia of ambitious attempts to make sense of the universe. He also strikes a jarring note when he seems to revel in the Large Hadron Collider at Cern having found no evidence for “supersymmetry”, an important scaffold for string theory.

As readers of his bestselling Seven Brief Lessons on Physics will know, Rovelli writes with elegance, clarity and charm. This new book, too, is a joy to read, as well as being an intellectual feast. For all its laudable ambition, however, you and I are unlikely ever to learn the truth about quantum gravity. Future generations of scientists and writers will have the privilege of writing the history of this particular subject. With theory ranging so far ahead of experimental support, neither strings nor loops, nor any of our other attempts to define quantum gravity, are likely to be correct. Reality is far more elusive than it seems.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli. Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre is published by Allen Lane (255pp, £16.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood