2016 is a very appropriate year for the world premiere of EINSTEIN: Master of the Universe, as it marks 100 years since Einstein first discovered his Theory of Relativity. It is perhaps less likely that such a show would be written, directed and performed by Australians, and premiere in Melbourne.
EINSTEIN: Master of the Universe was written by Jess Newman, an actor and composer currently studying composition at the VCA. In the program Newman states that “The moment I started to discover his surprising story I heard music…”
Newman chose to tell that story almost exclusively through song, as there is hardly any spoken dialogue in the show. This means that the audience’s ability to follow the story rests firmly on their understanding of the lyrics. Luckily, the entire cast did an excellent job of getting their tongue around the lengthy and often fast paced lyrics, despite some challenging melodies. The words were almost always crisp and easily understood, and therefore the story was easy to follow. The music itself was not always so easy to listen to, with the style reminding me a great deal of that of Stephen Sondheim, which can sometimes be challenging to listen to (and to sing!). The songs were generally very long, quite repetitive and with some awkward phrasing…made more pronounced by an intense devotion to rhyme. If you like a light hearted musical with catchy little songs you go home humming, this may not be for you. But even the more musically challenging numbers often had a more musical chorus to hook the audience back in and stick in their head (I did go home humming snatches of the title song). The songs moved the plot forward well, and the mainly serious numbers were broken up by more light-hearted ensemble numbers such as ‘If You Got the Idea’ and ‘I Got the News’, and small comedic moments such as those from Lorentz (played expressively by Josiah Lulham). For the most part, they were also beautifully sung.
Scott Mackenzie, in the title role, and Jessica Condon as Mileva Maric in particular produced exceptional vocal performances. Musical Director Taylen Furness has produced an excellent sound. Overall the cast was consistently strong vocally, and harmonised well. The cast was ably supported by the orchestra – the sound was consistently balanced, and in the 1 or 2 moments when I had trouble hearing the leads, it was when they were competing with the ensemble, rather than the orchestra, who did an excellent job.
The set, designed by Robert Alexander Smith, was minimal. Only a few items were ever on the stage at one time – a park bench, or Einstein’s desk and chair. At most, a couple of café tables, or 4 chairs in the patent office. These were brought on and off by the cast as the action continued. Combined with the projected art and animation for the backdrops, by Jack Kirby Crosby, these simple props were able to transform the stage into a wide number of locations. The projected images were used very cleverly to give the feeling of the rich architecture of the time, and identify the various locations – from train station to lecture hall to private residence, in an interesting way. Small animated projections also showed the passage of time – and physical passage on a moving train. The only negative in the set was the ill-fitting door at the rear of the stage, which allowed a clear view of actors milling about backstage, and the entrance stage right that was frequently left open, destroying the illusion on that wall that the projections were designed to create.
The Director, Daniel Czech, made good use of simple stage setting and small ensemble to tell a rich and layered story. The audience was transported through a significant part of Einstein’s life. The simple set and empty stage often highlighted the isolation and loneliness being felt by the characters at various times, and combined with a clever lighting design by Nick Glen effectively portrayed the chaos, wonder and obsession in Einstein’s brain. While it was easy to recognise the small cast playing a range of roles, the ensemble members made each character distinct. Both the stage direction, and the choreography by Nicholas Kyriacou utilised the luxury of an often empty stage to create the illusion of a much larger cast. The choreography was generally more ‘movement’ than dance per se’, and helped create atmosphere and mood within the crowd scenes.
The whole cast was proficient in all aspects of the performance – singing, acting and movement. The only element that distracted from the quality of the performances was the extreme inconsistency of the use of accents. With some of the cast, the accent came and went – or was used only when speaking, not singing. Mackenzie, Condon and Lachlan Hewson as Lenard were the only members of the cast whose accent was relatively consistent.
The illusion of our transport into Einstein’s world, and the character development, was enhanced by fastidious costuming by Lucy Wilkins. The costumes were beautiful, set perfectly in the appropriate era and went a step further, seeming to highlight how Einstein was set apart from the rest of the world. The entire cast, except for Einstein, was outfitted in warm autumn shades of brown and cream. Initially I interpreted this as a sepia effect, as we travelled back in time at the start of the show. However I then noticed that Einstein always wore shades of black and grey, and was the only character to wear any primary colour – a cool blue tie that was quite striking in a sea of warm shades.
The most interesting part of the performance for me was finding out so much about the life of Albert Einstein of which I was not aware. I found the focus on his personal life interesting. Despite being initially concerned about the announced length of the show (over 3 hours) it went surprisingly quickly – not only because the run time was much shorter than advertised, but because the story and performances were engaging and easily held the audience’s attention. Some of the individual songs were quite long did seem to drag, and I found the similarity of some numbers to Sondheim’s music disconcerting. For this performance, however, It was a joy to see talent of this calibre from an acting and vocal perspective. Condon’s performance moved me almost to tears, and Mackenzie was extremely believable as Einstein. They were supported by a strong cast and have produced an excellent performance that will no doubt improve even further as the run continues.
Einstein: Master of the Universe is playing until July 10th at Theatre Works, St Kilda
For more information and ticket: http://www.theatreworks.org.au/whatson/event/?id=291
Photo Credit: Ben Fon