Albert Einstein is a fascinating subject for films and theatre, judging by numerous plays and movies inspired by him, including Young Einstein, Picasso at the Lapin Agile and I.Q. to name a few. There’s no denying the man was a genius, hailed as one of the greatest scientific minds of all time whilst advocating the importance of retaining a childlike imagination.
Mark St. Germain’s play, Relativity, eschews all that, and digs a little deeper to find out about the other side of Einstein we rarely hear about; the side that scholars and biographers know existed but isn’t celebrated as part of his grandeur legacy. For all his scientific achievements and discoveries, for all his commendable humanitarian ideals, it seems that Einstein wasn’t exactly a symbol of salubrious masculinity. He was a ladies man. He neglected his family to focus on his career. He made unreasonable demands of his wives. He didn’t particularly like his wives. He was brusque and forceful with disciplining young children. The list goes on. Whilst these may be regarded as minor transgressions in the grander scheme of Einstein’s illustrious life, when placed in the context of what it was like to have him as a father…the answer is mootably different. The play pointedly asks the question: “To be a great man, does one first need to be a good man?”
Relativity makes use of three principal characters in a fictionalised context to examine this question, namely, Einstein, his secretary / housekeeper, and his long lost daughter Lieserl, who visits Einstein on the pretext of interviewing him for The Jewish Daily. At first, Einstein is cajoled into granting her an interview, smitten by the pretty young woman who says her name is Margaret and this is her “first assignment”. But when the questions turn from an interview into an interrogation about his family history and what happened to his baby daughter, Einstein shuts it down and asks her to leave. She almost does….until he realises the young woman is actually his own daughter, whom he abandoned when she was a baby.
The reasons seem valid but hurtful; she had scarlet fever, he didn’t know if she would survive, her mother at the time was unmarried (but ended up marrying Einstein anyway and having more children), he was just starting out in his career…the excuses pile on until the questions become more and more provocative, yielding Einstein to give away his most secret machinations of his mind. “Family is tar on my shoes!” he declares, stating that women and children are inhibitors to giving him the space and freedom he needs “to think”. Lieserl is unconvinced and inconsolable, pressing him with more philosophical questions about whether he would consider his behaviour forgivable. “Do you still listen to Wagner?” Lieserl asks, in reference to the composer’s association with the Nazis, to which Einstein, a Jew, ruefully answers “No”.
Directed by Johann Walraven, this production by Joining The Dots Theatre at Riverside Theatres in Parramatta is flawless in every way, with three excellent cast members in the lead roles. Nicholas Papademetriou as Einstein is perfect aesthetically and psychologically, switching between the avuncular, wise persona we often associate with Einstein and his more irascible, selfish side that loves knowledge for knowledge’s sake above everything else. He drew gasps from the audience for saying incredibly unkind things to his daughter, accusing her of being “so ordinary”, but also drew tears as he waited with her at the platform for the train to take her away from his life again. He never says “I love you” or “I’m sorry”, but the subtext is strongly felt and deeply moving.
Nisrine Amine as Margaret / Lieserl makes an impact measure for measure to Einstein’s intellect, easily dismissing his theories as if they were a row of dominos. What good are famous theories when his own children despise him? Their back and forth debate is dynamic and confronting as she shrewdly asserts Einstein’s failings as a father and human being. There are lively moments of respite when they demonstrate the theory of relativity, throwing cups and saucers around much to the chagrin of the housekeeper. Her description of her son, Abe, is very touching and authentic; he has also been gifted with genius, yet is unable to move beyond his own internal world to the real one outside. “I don’t want that for him” she declares.
It’s a stellar performance for a motherly role that is often regulated to being more passive and secondary to the story. Here, this is literally HERstory and it is Einstein who must answer to her.
Alison Chambers as the formidable housekeeper / secretary is also a strong female character, never settling for a Fräulein typecast, but demonstrating why she is proud to be the only woman who “really understands” Einstein’s personality, and prouder to staunchly guard his privacy from outside intrusion. Her matronly performance was believable and uncompromising, with hilarious one-liners delivered in a matter-of-fact way: “mayonnaise can curdle” she rebuts to Einstein’s confusion about why needs to eat a salad cold. Like Einstein, she has an aversion to overt expressions of warmth and tenderness, but does it in her own way by changing the sheets and serving tea, out of respect for his need for orderly discipline to focus on his work. It is a commendable performance, and credit to the playwright for giving us a meaningful expression of her love, however flawed it may be.
The stagecraft is absolutely beautiful, with autumn leaves and snowy foam strewn about the stage denoting the chilly exterior, and shifts in lighting taking us to the interior of Einstein’s private study, where portraits of other famous icons are hung and E = mc2 is chalked into patches along the wall. An antique chaise lounge offsets the colour scheme and draws the eye to its gorgeous wine-coloured plush, while across the stage Einstein’s desk is littered with study notes and a dippy bird. Behind it, on the wall, a violin is mounted, signifying the spool of Einstein’s attention from the sophisticated to the repetitive. Again, it is to the playwright’s and production’s credit for not merely throwing these things in as random decorations, but actually referring to each and every object in the room, so that the environment becomes as familiar to the audience as it is to the characters.
Overall, Relativity is a must-see production that will elicit laughter and tears, providing a thoughtful reflection on one of history’s greatest minds.
Relativity is playing at Riverside Theatres in Parramatta till 13 May 2023. For tickets and showtimes go to https://riversideparramatta.com.au/show/relativity/
Images: Iain Cox