Each act of Insignificance, a play set in one hotel room and featuring four icons of their field, opens with David Bowie’s final single before his death, Lazarus. No previous production of Insignificance – which debuted at London’s Royal Court in 1982 – can have opened with this music, and so the significance of its use by director Kate Wasserberg is interesting.
Apart from the song being a beautiful, melancholy composition by one of the greatest songwriters of all time, Lazarus’s lyrics are highly appropriate for the characters in the play: “Look up here, I’m in heaven/ I’ve got scars that can’t be seen/ I’ve got drama can’t be stolen/ Everybody knows me now.” The perfect choice by Wasserberg, written and performed by another towering icon in his field, now sadly lost to the world.
The plot of Insignificance is based on numerous events and facts from the lives of Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe and her second husband Joe DiMaggio, and Senator Joseph McCarthy (although they are never named, transforming what we know of them into mere iconography). It is set in one room of New York’s Langham Hotel in 1953, but some of the events of Terry Johnson’s play don’t fit this timeline (for instance, Monroe and DiMaggio didn’t marry until January 1954, and Monroe didn’t wear the famous Seven Year Itch white dress until September that year). But what Johnson’s going for here is more of a mash-up of these people’s lives in a series of events that never really happened, but might’ve. At a stretch.
When Monroe died in 1962, a signed photo of Albert Einstein was found among her effects. As far as the world knew, the two never met, and this provides Johnson’s inspiration for the play. If they did meet, what did they talk about? And what did Einstein have to be thankful for?
In Insignificance, we first meet Einstein, visited by bullish Senator McCarthy who is trying to get the German genius to testify at his Communist witch-hunt trials. Then Marilyn gatecrashes Einstein’s solitude as she tries to escape the prying eyes and lenses of her fans and the media. She wants to prove to Einstein that she knows what his theory of relativity is, which she does with the aid of three balloons and some toy trains.
Sophie Melville (who was mesmerising in Iphigenia in Splott) plays Monroe with the right level of vulnerability throughout. She bursts into Einstein’s room in full Blonde Bombshell guise, all breathy smiles and wide-eyed pouts, but this soon dies down to reveal the tortured actor’s truer self, the Norma Jean beneath the Hollywood charade. Marilyn was more intelligent that she was given credit for, but Einstein makes her see that knowledge is not understanding. She knows how to explain the theory of relativity using balloons and toy trains, but she does not understand it. It’s interesting to see Melville take Monroe from the clichéd Hollywood icon the world knew to a more three-dimensional human being.
Einstein is tortured by how fearful a place the world has become since the discovery of the atom bomb. His role in encouraging the Americans to build a bomb by telling President Roosevelt that the Germans were building their own affected him deeply. The Americans beat the Germans to it, and suddenly the world was a more dangerous place to live. It got colder…
Brendan Charleson is wonderful as the German theorist, complete with a frenzy of white hair and bushy moustache. He has a stillness, an inner calm, which brings out the scientist’s true humanity, and is the perfect foil for Christian Patterson’s domineering, blustering McCarthy. However, it is the scenes between just Melville and Charleson that work best – they have an obvious rapport, and Melville’s playfulness perfectly compliments Charleson’s bemusement. A lovely coupling.
Senator McCarthy was a bully and a bigot whose dislike for the famous showed through in his divisive world view and determination to stamp out what he saw as the insidious rise of Communism in American society. Patterson is suitably disconcerting as McCarthy, shouting through toothy smiles and threatening with two-edged words. He was not a man to like, and Patterson does a grand job of getting that across. When McCarthy and the alpha-male DiMaggio square up, and you’re expected to think the ballplayer would have the edge, Patterson makes it so that you can’t be so sure!
Ben Deery’s Joe DiMaggio is, on the surface, all baseball and bravado, boasting about his career achievements and how many bubblegum cards he’s graced. But beneath the bluster there’s a man facing the end of his world-conquering career as he ages and new names join the pitch. They are only pretenders to his throne, he believes, but he knows deep down that his position as the greatest living ballplayer is under threat. He also fears the loss of his wife, who doesn’t come home to him to make him the TV dinners he craves. He wants the most famous and beautiful woman in the world to become a typical 1950s housewife, and struggles to see that his delusion can never come to pass.
History tells us that, despite the marriage not lasting, DiMaggio remained dedicated to Monroe for the rest of his life. He died in 1999, aged 84, and never wrote about his relationship with Marilyn. He even arranged to have flowers placed on her grave three times a week. It’s plain from Johnson’s writing and Deery’s layered performance that DiMaggio never stopped loving Marilyn, a woman he wanted to have children with and grow old and die with. But the dream was not to be.
Insignificance boasts a clever in-the-round set by Amy Jane Cook, and some authentic period costume and hair designs from Debbie Knight and Deb Kenton, but there’s also some moody lighting from Nick Beadle, who contributes to a powerful moment near the end of the play when Einstein envisions the end of everything, with Marilyn at its core, like an angel of death – or mercy?
The events in Insignificance did not happen. Indeed, they could not have happened in the way they are shown. History denies that. But while the facts might be jumbled up, the four individual stories are built of truth and intuitive observation. It is a play about frustration – Marilyn is frustrated by her media image, DiMaggio by the waning of his career and marriage, McCarthy by the fact the world does not fit his view (hence his adoption of solipsism), and Einstein by the state of the planet as a result of his hand.
There’s a lot of sadness in this play, and a few laughs along the way, but what it leaves you with is a realisation that we should not judge the famous by what we’re told about them. If we look beneath the pouts and the baseball bats, the calculus and the politics, they are just people, like you and me. And this applies to icons in their field more than most.
INSIGNIFICANCE by Terry Johnson
Directed by Kate Wasserberg
At Theatr Clwyd until October 15th 2016