Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: The Ethics of Progress, Southwark Playhouse

Review: The Ethics of Progress, Southwark Playhouse

Written for Culture Wars, 23.08.2008

Quantum physics is a magnetic subject, at once attractive and dauntingly repellent. It promises answers and provokes headaches, throwing up counter-intuitive marvels and mysteries in the face of our everyday Newtonian understanding of the world. Unlimited Theatre’s The Ethics of Progress – a performance lecture delivered with likeable charm by Jon Spooner – neatly removes the fear-factor but fails to capture the astonishing topsy-turvy beauty of it all.

Spooner’s supposition – following a throwaway remark by his collaborator Professor Vlatko Verdal – is that quantum physics is not difficult stuff. In his hands, thanks to careful and patient elucidation, its principles straighten out into clarity. It works because Spooner, bouncing out onstage in a short-sleeved check shirt, is so obviously not an expert; he is one of us, an amateur enthusiast, empathetic to our struggle. He delivers delicate, jargon-free content accompanied by cutely illustrative projections.

Having steered us through the principles of superposition (whereby a particle can exist in two places simultaneously) and entanglement (whereby two distinct particles can exhibit identical properties), Spooner posits the possibility of teleportation with skilful precision, patience and, at times, flair.

Here, The Ethics of Progress turns its focus from the tiniest building blocks of our reality onto humanity, offering up conspiracy theories, epistemology, moral conundrums and questions of identity. Spooner’s concern, it becomes apparent, is not science but humanity’s response to and responsibility towards it. Technology happens, he says: “The thing about the future is, by the time it happens…it’s already too late.” What matters is our approach to that inevitable progress. A wheel, Spooner declares, is just a wheel, equally enabling ambulances and the transportation of Jews to Auschwitz. Technology can always be horribly convenient.

While Spooner has admirably grasped the art of explanation, his explanation never manages to satisfy as art. To do so, there must be something more. Consider Marilyn Monroe’s explanation of relativity to Albert Einstein in Terry Johnson’s Insignificance; or the wrangling of Werner Heinsenberg and Niels Bohr in Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. Here there is more at stake than mere science, there is humanity in all its fragile fallibility.

Like musical comedy, a performance lecture must wholly succeed on two separate fronts simultaneously in complete synthesis, whereby both forms entangle to enrich one another. The Ethics of Progress succumbs to the pressures of its multiplicity, with neither element emerging enhanced from the collision.

As performance, The Ethics of Progress never interrogates its own form: it exists as script delivered in front of us, with the illusion of spontaneity. Spooner’s hovering over words as if carefully selecting them in the moment serves only to diminish liveness and genuine connection with his audience. The lack of risk becomes apparent in the unscripted post-show Q&A session. Here assured recital gives way to vulnerable struggle to explain, scientific truth mingles with guesswork and conjecture, fact and fiction collide. In exposing his own status as enthusiast playing expert with honesty, Spooner struggles woefully, watchably and wonderfully.

Without this risk, the self-assured lecture becomes solely educational, succeeding and failing according to the individual’s personal understanding and learning. If one is already familiar with the ideas presented, there’s little to gain. As lecture, The Ethics of Progress suffers from a preference of breadth to depth and an inclination to offer questions in place of possible answers. While individual topics and principles are explained with clarity, Spooner’s connections between them often blur.

With a topic as grand as theoretical physics, it all feels strangely lightweight. Sitting somewhere between Dave Gorman’s stand-up and the Royal Institute’s Christmas Lectures, The Ethics of Progress is illustrative and interesting without ever illuminating.

Photograph: Unlimited Theatre

One Comment

  1. Payne’s subject is science. This has two sides. First, it suggests that the more control we have, the less we feel in control. Marianne repeatedly suggests life was easier when God could be invoked. Now, the nearer we elevate ourselves to God, the more we realise our own insignificance; that we are little more than “particles governed by a series of very particular laws being knocked the fuck around all over the place.” Roland’s job, by contrast, is about striving for contentedness; his four hives earn him all that he needs and he doesn’t feel the need to strive for anything more.

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