Terry Johnson’s pseudo-historical satire-cum-allegory Insignificance is Sheffield theatre audiences’ first sight of the work of artistic director-designate Samuel West, and it originates in the Lyceum rather than the Crucible, possibly its more natural home.
Herein lies the only problem with this polished production. In the high-ceilinged splendour of the Lyceum, words too often drift away in West’s wittily understated first act. Even the classic set piece of Marilyn Monroe’s demonstration of the Special Theory of Relativity to Albert Einstein (complete with visual aids) loses a little. Act Two, with the brute menace of Joe McCarthy (Gerard Horan) setting the tone, plays with the requisite bite, both comic and dramatic.
But is it Joe McCarthy? Horan switches unsettlingly to open brutality from a Southern chivalry reminiscent of Oliver Hardy – no trace of McCarthy’s Wisconsin origins. Johnson’s play takes pains to prototype his characters as the Professor, the Senator, the Actress and the Ballplayer (Joe DiMaggio, of course).
Fame, the author suggests, is insignificant. Whoever they are, the Professor’s hotel room in New York is invaded in turn by the politician trying to fix his cooperation with the House Committee, the film star escaping her public (and seeking an intellectual) and the athlete (just seeking his wife). So the metaphysical farce begins.
Only Mary Stockley attempts – very successfully – an impersonation of her historical model: Marilyn Monroe lives too vividly in everyone’s personal newsreel of the past for her to do otherwise. Stockley’s vulnerability, intellectual questing and volatility finds a perfect counterpoint in Patrick O'Kane’s literal-minded Ballplayer, though he, too, has his intellectual aspirations and even the Senator is learning a hard word every day.
As the real intellectual, Nicholas Le Prevost, whether tortured, bewildered or amused, is the soul of civilised behaviour, unwittingly turning the Actress onto her next husband with his adoption of the key statement, “because it is my name”, from The Crucible, later echoed by Arthur Miller himself before a McCarthy-ite tribunal.
Tom Piper’s design has definite, though not over-stated, echoes of Edward Hopper – the Actress looking wistfully through the window is the epitome of all those solitary women in Hopper hotels and apartments – with the sky above, out of which explodes the terrifying neutron bomb of the Professor’s imaginings.
Surprisingly, Insignificance is now over 20 years old. When Horan’s right-wing demagogue sets about justifying the unjustifiable by claiming it’s necessary for “the survival of the free world”, it seems as up-to-date as ever.