In a recent online interview with the National Theatre’s Rufus Norris, Olivia Colman revealed that she has been a victim of the actor’s nightmare stage fright (cf Laurence Olivier, Ian Holm, Daniel Day Lewis). In fact, she has resorted to hypnotherapy in the past to get her through performances. It is one of the reasons she has tended to concentrate on film and television and her last foray onto an actual stage was also for Norris in his production of Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitoes in 2017. Not having seen it and, by the sounds of it possibly never getting to see Colman on stage, I thought I would take the opportunity to catch up with the play which is showing as part of the National At Home subscription service.
This is an archive recording and was therefore never originally intended for broadcast and the first thing that this video demonstrates is just how much work must go into putting on one of the full scale National Theatre Live productions. I found it took a good fifteen minutes or so to get my ears attuned to the sound, meaning I probably missed some good lines. Some of the camerawork too was erratic. But at least the National are not trying to pretend that the filming is anything it is not, and once I’d settled into the rhythms of the piece it all seemed a lot easier to appreciate.
Mosquitoes is, by any stretch of the imagination, a dense play – dramas about science and maths always seem to be (cf Arcadia, Copenhagen, Humble Boy), or is that just me? This one is set in 2008 in Geneva and the background events are the start up of the Large Hadron Collider (was/is there a small version somewhere?) the world’s biggest machine charged (literally) with hurling particles together at phenomenal speeds to …well, to what, I’m still not clear? Alice is one of the top scientists at her job and has an ordered routine which is threatening to disintegrate via aspects of her personal life. Her son Luke (equally brilliant) is probably on the autistic spectrum and gets himself into difficulties with his peers which lead him to run away from home. Her mother Karen (also equally brilliant) fears the onset of dementia. Above all her sister Jenny comes to represent the forces of chaos which threaten ordered existence on both a personal and scientific level. Jenny has not followed the family tradition of becoming a top flight scientist but instead sells medical insurance as a call centre worker and has recently lost a baby after failing to have her vaccinated (very topical, once again). She does, however, appear to be the only one of the quartet who has a deal of human feeling for the other members of her family and provides the necessary glue to stop them falling apart.
For in the end this isn’t so much a play about particle physics as it is about a dysfunctional family working through crisis with the scientific aspect acting as an extended metaphor for the main thrust of the piece. But if you are of an enquiring mind there’s plenty of theorising about the start and end of the universe from a character called The Boson (as in Higgs Boson, presumably) who delivers a series of mini lectures which are staged spectacularly utilising the light, sound and video of Paule Constable, Paul Arditti and Fin Ross/Ian William Galloway respectively. It is also intimated that The Boson is the otherwise unseen ex-partner of Alice and father of Luke who has been driven to the edge of reason by his unsettling research.
The main quartet of actors are all on top form with Amanda Boxer and Joseph Quinn representing the previous and next generations of scientific minds. Boxer’s acerbic comments about her own daughters reveal the terror of a once celebrated scientist in her own right (though not so celebrated that they gave her a Noble prize rather than her less deserving husband) staring at the prospect of losing control of both her mind and body. Quinn is delightful as the socially awkward and rather naïve Luke who finds any sort of relationship hard going and is better with scientific concepts and the workings of IT than he ever will be with people. The two Olivias – Williams and Colman make for a formidable team. As Alice, Williams shows us a woman who clearly lives by the rules whose moral space really needs to be invaded by the less strictured approach of her sibling in order to gain a new perspective. Colman delivers her usual and winning mix of the ordinary/extraordinary and has most of the funny lines delivered, of course, with impeccable timing.
Mosquitoes is a long evening (particularly given some of the technical shortfall) which will bring a number of rewards though, in my case anyway, a better understanding of the physics wasn’t one of them. I preferred to enjoy it on the level of a human drama and as a feast of good acting and extremely good production values. For all it’s background symbolism the play is, in the end, about the chalk and cheese sisters who find a new rapport in crisis and demonstrate that both order and chaos are necessary conditions for the human experience to flourish.
Production photos by Brinkhoff Mogenburg
Mosquitoes is available on National Theatre At Home – click here
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