Simon Stephens’ Heisenberg is faux theatre for a poverty-stricken time, says Alison Croggon
The Fairfax Theatre at Arts Centre Melbourne is a famously difficult space. Originally designed by John Truscott to be a studio theatre with flexible seating, all the chairs were nailed down a while back after it became clear that moving the rostra was prohibitively expensive. So now it’s fixed in place, creating a corner stage with a strangely claustrophobic ceiling.
Perhaps this is why Tom Healey’s production of Heisenberg, a two-hander by UK playwright Simon Stephens, puts a theatre inside the theatre. Anna Borghesi’s set summons the roughly-painted found interior of a low-budget indie theatre – the Store Room in Fitzroy, perhaps – complete with scruffy walls, exposed wiring and actor-placed props.
It seems to express a kind of dissociative nostalgia for an aesthetic that, let’s face it, is a million miles from the usual aspirational aesthetic embraced by the Melbourne Theatre Company. No shiny edges, no chandeliers or expensive costumes: instead, a reproduction of indie authenticity airlifted into the plush.
From the beginning this production is strangely alienating, the set serving to emphasise an air of falsity. It feels like something pretending to be something else; perhaps undead theatre pretending to be live theatre. If you watch it through the corner of your eye, it almost might fool you.
Heisenberg is, to put it kindly, a lesser play in Simon Stephens’ wide oeuvre. In the early 2000s, he enlivened English theatre with plays such as Pornography, Three Kingdoms and Seawall. When the belligerently anti-mainstream Three Kingdoms premiered in 2012, it generated an instant division between print and online critics in the UK, who respectively thought it was an indulgent mess or, as Maddy Costa put it, “the herald of new possibilities for English theatre”.
In 2015, the MTC introduced Simon Stephens to Melbourne audiences with Leticia Cáceres passionately intelligent production of Birdland, a contemporary version of Brecht’s Baal. They followed up last year with the National Theatre production of Stephens’ adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. As Tom Middleditch of A’tistic Theatre points out, it was a spectacle of problematic sentimentality: but it was also a guaranteed hit.
Perhaps it’s a sign of the creeping impoverishment of our culture that in 2019 we’re served a two-finger exercise that should have remained in the “draft” drawer, at best as a series of sketches for a later play. The major mystery here is why this play was programmed at all. Or perhaps it’s not such a mystery: the star power of Kat Stewart, a fine stage actor who is best known for her role in the tv hit show Offspring, saw the season extended before it opened. As a two-hander, it’s a cheap hit for the MTC, and will undoubtedly be seen as a success. This is of course what happens when artistic “success” is only defined by the bottom line.
The play itself turns to the hackneyed metaphor of quantum physics as a parallel for human relationships: in this case, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Wikipedia handily defines it thus: “ In quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle is any of a variety of mathematical inequalities asserting a fundamental limit to the precision with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle, known as complementary variables or canonically conjugate variables such as position x and momentum p, can be known.” What this means is, for example, that the more precisely we determine the position of a particle, the less precisely we can determine its momentum.
This is a very complex mathematical theory about sub-atomic particles, and can only vaguely be applied to phenomena like love affairs. There are in fact serious speculative theories about the possible relationship between quantum physics and human consciousness; but the temptations of metaphor also generate the kind of pop psychology that advises us on “Quantum Love Principles for Attracting the Relationship You Really Want”: “Rooted in quantum physics, which suggests that we’re all pure energy made of atoms vibrating at different frequencies every second of the day and that ‘like attracts like’, quantum love posits that we are the creators of our realities, which includes our love lives.”
Insert screaming emoji now.
Heisenberg serves up this kind of pap: a quirky feel-good love story between 42-year-old drifter Georgie Burns (Kat Stewart) and 73-year-old butcher Alex Priest (Peter Kowitz), given a wobbly intellectual spine by the over-arching metaphor of uncertainty. Their encounter begins in Kings Cross Station, London, when Georgie randomly kisses Alex on the back of his neck.
Presumably to undermine the potential creepiness of this premise, Stephens gives Georgie a predatory edge: the major uncertainty driving the play is whether her loneliness is the major driver of her desire for intimacy, or whether she just wants Alex’s money. Alex, on the other hand, is presented as completely harmless, if perhaps a little hapless and naïve. Of course, they overcome their mutual distrust and discover the joys of the present moment, without expectation.
Stephens is a good enough writer to make both of these characters paradoxical enough to almost seem real, but it remains impossible to untangle the plot from the stale fantasy of the ordinary older man pursued by an attractive younger woman that still dominates stage and screen in our patriarchal times, tra la. My discomfort watching the play ranged from deep to trivial throughout the play, but never went away.
The performances end up being as dissonant as the rest of the production. Stewart and Kowitz generate little electricity: you never understand the attraction between them, and Kowitz seldom lifts past a curious passivity. Perhaps to compensate, Stewart’s performance is a constant parade of exaggerated gestures and tics, the very picture of quirk.
At one point I wondered if it would be any better if the genders were swapped. Say, something like Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1970s film Fear Eats the Soul, which records the relationship between a dumpy 60-year-old woman, Emmi, and a Moroccan garage mechanic, Ali, who is 20 years younger than she is. But this shatteringly tender film tracks how this relationship offends every social expectation of the society around them, exploring the vicious edges of ageism and racism.
In Heisenberg, on the other hand, there’s little sense of social context for either of these characters. They’re isolated and atomistic, and their relationship has no effect on anyone but themselves. The more you look, the less there is to it. Like the set, this production attempts to generate an illusion of authenticity: but an illusion is all it is. Faux theatre for a poverty-stricken time.
Heisenberg, by Simon Stephens, directed by Tom Healey. Set and costumes by Anna Borghese, lighting design by Clemence Williams, composition and sound design by Anna McCrossin-Owen. Performed by Peter Kowitz and Kat Stewart. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Fairfax Studio, Arts centre Melbourne. Until July 6. Bookings
Wheelchair accessible, hearing assistance
Audio Described: Saturday 8 June at 2pm, Tuesday 11 June at 6.30pm
Tactile Tour: Prior to the Saturday 8 June performance at 1pm
Open Captioning via screen: Saturday 15 June at 2pm