What a glorious night of theatre Nearer the Gods is, the world premiere of great Australian maestro David Williamson’s new work. Nance Haxton reviews:

David Williamson bravely ventures out into new territory with Nearer The Gods. Typically known for searing analyses of Australian cultural quirks, here he takes on no less than Sir Isaac Newton’s quest to unravel the mysteries of the universe.

It’s a bold move – one that carries great risk, reminiscent of the story that evolves on stage.

But what is all the more impressive is that Queensland Theatre pulls this off with such aplomb. Knowing nothing of mathematics, or science at all for that matter, is unimportant. The idea of listening to mathematical equations unfold may seem a dystopian nightmare to some, but Nearer the Gods brings human context to historical facts and figures. It takes the viewer on an intimate journey into such characters as well as those who surround and enable them, and is remarkably compelling for it.

Such a play brings to light how close these pivotal moments came to not happening at all. Insights, historical twists of fate and acts of bravery all play their part.

Nearer Gods Queensland Theatre

Rhys Muldoon

The production starts as a tongue in cheek nod to history, with Sir Isaac Newton (Rhys Muldoon) dressed in traditional garb of long white curly wig, writing notes by candlelight. However as Nearer the Gods proceeds, the traditional costume is removed and the fourth wall is smashed. The fully exposed stage effectively brings the characters closer without distraction.

It must be one of the great challenges of modern theatre to make mathematical theory sexy, but Queensland Theatre and Williamson have executed this in a master stroke. Direction from Sam Strong beautifully brings the show to life with a pared back set of swirling tables on wheels spinning around the stage as if they were planets in motion themselves. Strong transforms ponderous equations into lively action and brings to life the intricacies of such discoveries. His finely tuned choreography is as detailed as any modern dance work and yet cleverly keeps the story moving as well.

Nearer Gods Queensland Theatre

William McInnes is a fearsome presence as King Charles II. His mellifluous tones fill the theatre with gravitas and the fear that his subjects no doubt would have felt. But he also brings welcome relief to the role with deft comic timing, as he debates astronomy with the Royal Society and encourages all endeavours that aim to beat those pesky French to the latest and greatest idea.

Muldoon is incredibly touching with a beautiful segue into Isaac Newton’s difficult character, and what has led to his fine line between genius and madness. Seen beautifully through the eyes of fellow scientist Edmund Halley (Matthew Backer), the neglect Newton felt as a child is a stark contrast to the devotion that Halley experienced. In a particularly tender moment, Newton and Halley ponder the night sky as the stars surround and envelope the audience – a brief look into the world of how these geniuses interpret the vast web of gravity that envelopes the whole universe. The joy as each new discovery unfolds, despite immense relationship pressures brought to life by Mary Halley (the impressive Kimie Tsukakoshi), shows the tender yet remarkable meeting of minds that overcome a variety of intense conflicts.

Nearer Gods Queensland Theatre

Nearer The Gods is the perfect way to reopen Brisbane’s newly renovated Bille Brown theatre, and a fascinating realisation at how close Newton’s pivotal theories of motion came to oblivion. The creative team impressively highlight the extraordinary lengths to which Halley had to go to get Newton’s work published, such work that is taken for granted as the bedrock of modern scientific theory today.

Nearer The Gods runs at the Bille Brown Theatre until 3 November 2018. For more information, visit the venue website here.