Leap of faith: STC's Vere (Faith)

Here are three facts:
In January 1836, Charles Darwin, naturalist, stood at Govett’s Leap in the Blue Mountains and first speculated that the Earth had evolved over millions of years.
In 1957, Vere Gordon Childe, archaeologist, fell to his death from Govett’s Leap, in an act that is considered by many to have been suicide.
In a university somewhere, a physicist at the top of his game is given a devastating diagnosis and his world falls apart.
In a co-production between the Sydney Theatre Company and State Theatre Company of South Australia, playwright John Doyle has used these three facts to create a timely and ultimately quite moving, eloquent and human meditation on science, faith, dignity and love. Vere (Faith) is indebted as much to Darwin and Hawking as it is to the strength and reflexive defensiveness of familial ties, as well as to Doyle’s wit and skill as an educator and broadcaster.

We open on Vere, the aforementioned physicist (named, conincidentally, after the aforementioned archaeologist), farewelling the year’s cohort of physics students. About to journey to Switzerland’s CERN Laboratory, his speech is as much about looking into the past as it is about looking forwards to the future. In the faculty staffroom, jokes and jibes are traded and parried, tossed around the room over (many) glasses of Grange. And finally, we are at a family dinner party in an inner-city apartment, where the play’s events build to their natural and tragic conclusion.
Vere (Faith) is simply and concisely designed by Pip Runciman (set) and Renée Mulder (costumes). Their university staffroom is extraordinary in its ordinariness, realistic to the point of functionality, but its aesthetic blandness merely serves as a backdrop to Doyle’s colourful and acutely-realised characters. By contrast, the interior of their inner-city apartment is dominated by a large window-like space at the back of the stage, and two angled walls lined with doors. Whilst allowing for rapid entrances and exits as required by Doyle’s script, it lends a kind of surrealist edge to the scene, a decision which only highlights Vere’s loss of grip on his mind and his reality. Lit by Nigel Levings with warmth and cleverness, there are many beautiful moments to love in this production, directed by STC Co-Resident Director Sarah Goodes.
Doyle’s script is smart, witty, intellectual and very funny, painfully so at times, and is reminiscent of some of Tom Stoppard’s work, Travesties and Arcadia in particular. Where Act One is lewd and bawdy, there is a point behind the colleagues’ jocular antics – the need and desire to understand, to know, to quantify and label, to keep a hold of knowledge, to keep a hold onto this world. In light of Vere’s diagnosis, this seems only all too real a desire. In Act Two, however, the focus shifts to the age-old debate of science vs. religion, and is set on the occasion of the meeting of two families, prospective in-laws, and their dissection of the meaning and articulation of faith is what gives Doyle’s play its moral and philosophical punch. Each actor, saving Paul Blackwell as Vere, is given a dual role, a narrative and directorial decision which subtly and poignantly illustrates the evaporation of a once-great mind with devastating effect. In the second act, each actor seems to play the mirror-image of their character in the first act: where one is a super-brainy physicist in one act, they are a blindly-believing religious fanatic the next; where one is a shy and unworldly geek, they are by turn a passionate and articulate arguer for rational thought and logic. As Vere mishears and misconstrues snippets of conversation, mistakes people for their Act One counterparts, his comments feed into and steer the dinner party towards its inevitable end, and it is Doyle’s skill as a writer and storyteller that makes this conceit work as well and as harrowingly as it does.
The cast are all tremendous, led with warmth and dignity by Paul Blackwell’s Vere. Reminiscent at times of Jim Broadbent, his affability disarming, and as we watch his mind evaporate and scatter itself in fragments, we cannot help but want to reach out to him. His defence of faith in science and facts is worth applauding, and he is not afraid to speak his mind, no matter the consequences. Matilda Bailey is beautifully passionate and enthusiastic as Gina, an up-and-coming PhD candidate, and her turn as Gianna is its perfectly-observed mirror: a very twenty-first century twenty-something-year-old whose lack of worldly knowledge is every bit as real as it is frustrating. Yalin Ozucelik as Vere’s son Scott is full of a fiery resignation towards his father’s inevitable decline, refusing to let him pass without a fight. Their briefly shared moment of clarity late in Act Two is heartbreaking, while Scott’s defence of science is astute, concise and irrefutable. Ksenja Logos, Matthew Gregan, Geoff Morrell and Rebecca Massey are all tremendous, each bringing a warmth and lived-in-ness to their characters which could have otherwise been turned to caricatures in others’ hands. The fact that Vere (Faith) is an ensemble show that rallies around Blackwell’s Vere is perhaps Doyle’s point, as is demonstrated by the analogy he uses early on in Act One to describe the Higgs boson, the infamous God Particle, and subject of this year’s recent Nobel Award in Physics.
Tim Minchin, in his foreword to The Best Australian Science Writing 2013 quotes Douglas Adams when he said that he’d “take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.” Adams’ sentiment, as echoed by Minchin and countless others (myself included), forms part of Vere’s seemingly incontrovertible defence of science, of putting one’s faith in science. “There are two ways to live your life,” he says to Roger. “Do you believe in miracles, or don’t you?” I do, says Roger, to which Vere replies, “Then I feel sorry for you, because there is no chance of us ever being able to have a rational and logical conversation.” And here’s the thing that Vere and Adams and Minchin are getting at: labelling something as a ‘miracle’ is just an easy way to say ‘I don’t understand how this thing happened.’ But you can always try to know how something happened, and if you really wanted to, you could always try and forget you ever knew something. But if you don’t know something, you don’t know that you don’t know it because you don’t know it; it’s only when you learn something, grow into an awareness of it, that you realise that you didn’t know it to begin with.
To put it another way, ignorance most definitely is not bliss and blind unquestioning faith is dangerous. Yet, when all is said and done, imagination is our greatest strength; the fact we can dream and imagine and want to know, that is our greatest asset. The thirst and hunt for knowledge is inexhaustible. When Vere’s end comes, finally, it seems logical and the only way out. The fact that it comes to it at all means he still has clarity, still has a choice, in much the same way that his namesake did on Govett’s Leap in 1957. As both Vere’s know (or knew), to die with dignity is the best way to go, and Vere Gordon Childe’s final words in his letter, “life ends best when one is happy and strong,” seem to ring as true for our Vere as for any other.

Theatre playlist: 34. Higgs Boson Blues, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds

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