Stella – February 2015

Experience: 6/10

By Siobhán Nicholas

Directed by the company and Polly Irvin

Company: Take The Space

Venue: Minerva Theatre

Date: Thursday 19th February 2015

We’d seen this company’s Hanging Hooke several years ago, and were keen to view this new play. By the same writer, it also involved Chris Barnes from the earlier piece, Siobhán Nicholas herself and Sian Webber. They played characters in both the present and past, and although this meant a fair bit of jumping around, the story gradually began to emerge.

When we entered the auditorium, there was already some pre-show scene setting going on. A black back wall acted as a screen on which were projected various pictures and illustrations of astronomical subjects, everything from paintings of constellation figures through star charts to modern photographs of stellar objects. Along with this there was a low volume assortment of voices talking about (I presume) astronomical topics. At one point I thought I heard Stephen Hawking’s voice, but it may have been the mechanised effect of speaking over the radio at a distance – there were the tell-tale breathy sounds after the person finished speaking. I only heard one woman’s voice in the whole time we were there, an appropriate proportion given tonight’s subject matter.

In the centre of the stage was a circular rug on which stood a circular table. Two small circular cushions were positioned on the floor on either side, and later I noticed that the table itself had a partially cushioned cover, which came in handy when the cast chose to sit on it. Three wooden chairs of a very angular design were placed on the edges of the acting space, with one back right, one back left and one front right. The ones at the back had some items of clothing draped over them, and there were a few assorted items beside each one, not easy to see in the gloom. My view was also being blocked by the rest of the audience taking their seats – not a complaint, just an observation – so I had to take advantage of any glimpses I could get plus Steve’s extra pair of eyes.

I could just make out a small telescope beside the screen on the left and some other brass object on the opposite side, but that was partially hidden by the chair. The auditorium was pretty full, and there was a good proportion of younger people in the mix. We were located just left of centre in the second row.

After the volume was turned up on the voices – we got a snippet of the Apollo 11 lunar module’s descent – the lights went out and the actors took their places. I won’t give a blow by blow description of the staging; it was fairly free-flowing and moved between the time zones and places easily, taking us with it. While I didn’t always catch the dialogue, I was aware of the time periods and who was who in each one. We began with the present, meeting Jessica (Sian Webber), a professional radio astronomer, and her husband Bill (Chris Barnes), a musical conductor. He was off to Hamburg to work, and had expected her to go with him. She had a job in England and didn’t want to leave. Their daughter Eve was away in Egypt on a gap year – we would see her later on the screen.

Jessica’s immediate task was to write a piece about Caroline Herschel, and she intended to visit the house the Herschels had lived and worked in as part of her research. She met the curator Penelope (Siobhán Nicholas) and was given Caroline’s papers to study. There was a ten year gap where it appeared that Caroline had destroyed some of her own writing; this intrigued Jessica, and she wanted to explore why she had made this choice.

From time to time she received a video from Eve showing the work she was doing – a project about Hypatia, a Greek mathematician, astronomer and philosopher who lived in Egypt and who was also a woman. The project took the form of getting a number of her friends to sing a song in Greek – Eve was going to study Classics when she got back – and we saw the resulting video on the screen and heard the translations over a couple of scenes.

In the meantime, William Herschel (Chris Barnes) and his sister Caroline (Siobhán Nicholas) arrived in England. She spoke German to begin with, and he had to insist that she speak English instead. He was teaching her various subjects including mathematics, and we gathered that she had been completely occupied doing housework back in Hanover; both she and her brother wanted more for her. Their older brother Jacob, now the head of the family after their father’s death, wanted Caroline to return to Germany, but William reassured her that she didn’t have to go and the Herschels soon settled down to their main occupation which was… music!

Yes, that startled me at first, but William was also keen to set up a large reflecting telescope to study the stars, and was expecting Caroline to get involved too. She was more interested in being a singer – she had a lovely voice – and eventually sang the lead soprano role in Handel’s Messiah; it sounded lovely. It became clear that William had some of Jacob’s tendencies, as he wanted to prevent Caroline having a fully independent life as a singer – she was much too useful to him as an assistant, taking notes, polishing lenses, etc. They had a few arguments over this, and although she eventually gave in and became in many ways a better astronomer than her brother – she took detailed notes on the position of each celestial object instead of using William’s right a bit, left a bit approach – I still felt a sense of frustration on her behalf.

William was appointed Astronomer Royal, and used this as leverage in their ongoing struggle to determine her career. It seems that marriage wasn’t an option for her as she wasn’t a looker, but they made it clear that she preferred her work in any case. When William married, her life became more precarious, as William’s wife Mary didn’t want her around. Her nephew apparently favoured his aunt over his mother, and what woman wouldn’t find that hard to take? There was one final scene between William and Caroline where she explained this to him; that led Jessica, in the present, to the realisation that Caroline had destroyed papers relating to her feelings about this situation in order to protect her brother’s reputation and to keep her nephew from finding out what had gone on. She poured out her resentment and anger onto those pages, and chose to destroy them to prevent others discovering the truth.

The play drew to a close with Jessica trying to get in touch with her daughter. Eve’s trip to Egypt coincided with the unrest there in November 2011, and with reports of protesting women being attacked by the police and dragged off to prison, Jessica and Bill were naturally concerned. He came back from Hamburg to be with Jessica – work be blowed! – and the pair of them ended up lying side by side on the floor, using the cushions as pillows. Caroline Herschel had the final lines; she talked about her other possible lives, with children perhaps, and as she mentioned them lying in bed at night, she laid a cloth over the two people lying on the ground. There was a final video clip of Eve and her friends, and then it was finished.

Although I wouldn’t rate this as highly as Hanging Hooke, there was still a lot to enjoy. Caroline had a nice line in snarky humour, such as when she read out a negative review of William’s musical compositions. She was the one who suggested that William make his own mirrors for the telescope, and she was also the one who held the jug for him when he needed to relieve himself during the laborious grinding process. Her discoveries of comets and planetary nebulae were also mentioned, as well as the importance of her catalogue, which was invaluable to other astronomers both then and now.

The problems I found with this piece were mainly structural. It took a while to get the hang of what was going on, particularly as I couldn’t make out all of the dialogue to begin with, even when it was in English. The German accents which Caroline in particular continued to use also got in the way at times. With an older actress playing Caroline throughout, it was hard to tell how old she was at the start, so some mention of this by Jessica when she was telling us the dates of the entries would have been helpful. We assumed she started off in her mid-twenties (Wikipedia confirms this) but it wasn’t clear from the performance.

The links to the present day material were also a bit hazy. The disagreements between William and Caroline on the one hand, and Bill and Jessica on the other, underlined the constant struggle for women to find fulfilment professionally as well as domestically, and that worked effectively. However the videos of the young women singing the song and occasionally talking were fine, but didn’t add to the theme. Even though it allowed Jessica to bring in information about Hypatia, the link was tenuous at best. The pay-off came with the final scene, showing us that women are still being treated badly today, but we know this happens, and as Eve wasn’t a scientist that point was rather weak. It did allow us to see Jessica and Bill coming together again over their family’s needs, something Caroline and William couldn’t do, but I still feel that this area needs serious editing, with more of Caroline and William, or even Caroline’s life after William died, and less of the modern era.

The changes from time period to time period were well done, with cardigans coming in handy for quick changes of costume. At one point William took a glass of wine out of Jessica’s hand as she sat reading the notebooks – a nice touch. We could hear Jessica’s phone ringing as part of the story, so it was handy that no other mobile phones joined in (and something of a miracle, too). The little scene of Bill skyping with Jessica gave us a few laughs as well as contributing some information about the relationship between William and Caroline, which Bill had gleaned from his contacts in Hamburg. Overall, it was an interesting piece, and despite the drawbacks well worth seeing. I’ll be looking out for any further works from this writer.

© 2015 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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