Catherine Potter reviews Atlas at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that ‘for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction’. Strictly speaking, this refers to objects. But I’m not a physicist, and this is not a physics paper, it’s a review of Jared and Noah Liebmiller’s play Atlas, which takes Newton’s Third Law and applies it to emotions. Beginning with a bet between three men over who can explain the planetary motions, this play dramatises the legendary feud between Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke. Hooke pushes, Newton stumbles. Newton pushes back, and Hooke topples over entirely. And yet Atlas is beautifully effective in its portrayal of human nature.


Director Alexander Gillespie begins the play with his characters crouched on the floor. One rises – Edmund Halley (Benjamin Osugo), famed discoverer of Halley’s Comet and the show’s narrator. He asks the big question ‘What can one day contain? How much does a wager cost?’ Accompanied by scratches of chalk on blackboard that were unfortunately quite distracting throughout most of the play, Halley’s monologue sets up the plot. Here, the Liebmillers demonstrate that this play focuses on human relationships. These are not gods or natural philosophers on stage, they are men who sit on the floor and go to public houses, who are jealous and who fight.


As the play marches towards its inexorable conclusion, we meet the rest of the characters; the sharp-tongued Robert Hooke (Eleanor Burke), the eccentric Isaac Newton (Lydia Seed), the affable Christopher Wren (Daniel Jonusas). Each performance in the play was strong, well-thought out and nuanced. Eleanor Burke as the antagonistic Robert Hooke had a tendency to drift towards a very catty tone which threatened to overwhelm the character. However, in crucial moments, Burke was chillingly vulnerable, reminding the audience that Hooke is also human and not the clear-cut villain of the piece. The final scene between Hooke and Wren destroyed any villainous overtones as Burke embodied the breakdown of a man in possession of a career and a life utterly ruined.


Lydia Seed’s Isaac Newton was not a sensitive protagonist broken by his banishment from London, but deliciously pompous and arrogant, wishing to destroy his rival, and far too satisfied by his victory. Seed did a wonderful job at showing this legend of mathematics and physics as petty, ungrateful and dangerously competitive. Even when tempered by Halley, we doubt that Newton has learned his lesson, and this was in part to Seed’s skilful manipulation of language, both verbal and physical. This performance was filled with unbridled arrogance and barely concealed contempt for the rest of humanity, with an effective hint of vulnerability.


Christopher Wren began as the playful comic relief, and it would be easy to peg him as a clown. But watching his friends spiral into rivalries and animosity, Jonusas skilfully steered Wren into bitter nostalgia, followed by simple frustration. He realises he cannot salvage his friendship with Hooke or Halley and walks away from both of them, handing the forty shillings Hooke owed Halley for winning the bet with contempt, anger and overwhelming sadness.


The lynchpin character of the play is Edmund Halley. Osugo was on stage for the whole of the play, and his monologues kept the action moving. Therefore, his mature depiction of the character satisfyingly in contrast to the rest of the characters’ petty machinations, even if Halley too stumbles and makes mistakes. After all, it is Halley who ties them all together. It is in his house the four characters finally meet; it is his agreement that seals the bet that tears his friendships apart. Osugo portrayed the character with initial enthusiasm at Newton’s discovery that transitioned into a quiet dejection at the damage done. Although he is ecstatic at Newton’s success, so much so that he agrees to publish his book, Halley can never shake the fact that he has caused this rift.


The scientific facts are set out in layman’s terms that can be understood by non-scientists with a bit of thought (kudos to Seed for remembering all the equations of the inverse square). But Atlas succeeds because it is not too blusterous or self-important; the costumes are simple and not period dress (which may have been distracting); the dialogue is not over-blown or too archaic. This is a tightly written and well directed play that concerns humanity, anger, and revenge. One man pushes, and the other stumbles. He pushes back, and the first man topples.


STARS: * * * *

Catch Atlas at theSpace on North Bride (Venue 36) at 18.25 until 19th August