Review: Insignificance (Arcola Theatre)

Terry Johnson’s play about Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein is revived by David Mercatali

Marilyn Monroe may or may not have slept with Albert Einstein. The actress Shirley Winters’ autobiography hints as much, but never conclusively. As flatmates, they spoke of famous men they’d bed and Monroe picked Einstein. A renowned sapiosexual, she kept his signed photo, albeit fake, on her baby grand. The superstar and the scientist? Just imagine.

Terry Johnson’s 1982 fantasia does exactly that. Set in 1954, the night after Monroe’s iconic 'flying skirt' shoot, it brings four of the most famous faces in American history together in a Manhattan hotel suite: Einstein, Monroe, her gum-chewing husband Joe DiMaggio and the commie-hunting Senator Joseph McCarthy. As a play, it hovers on the cusp of credibility – patently not true, but not impossible either. In statistics, significance refers to very unlikely occurrences. These four might have met – the dates fit, there are rumours and reasons enough – but, mostly likely, they didn’t and, if they did, almost certainly not like this. And yet…

By giving us dates and details, a time and a place, Insignificance toys with its own veracity. However improbable, it is possible and, by daring us to disbelieve, Johnson hits a sweet spot of ambiguity. This may or may not have happened. Marilyn Monroe may or may not have knocked on Albert Einstein’s door one night and explained his own theory of relativity back to him. These may or may not even be them. Johnson’s script only identifies them obliquely – The Actress and The Professor – so while we’ve reason to assume their identities, we can’t be certain. Tellingly, there’s a cat in the en suite that meows sporadically, sometimes there, sometimes not. It belongs to Einstein’s friend, Erwin Schrödinger.

Insignificance turns its title over like a stick of DiMaggio’s beloved bubble gum. A Stoppardian meditation on fame, it pits icons we know with the real people we don’t. Johnson subverts all of them, reminding us that, for all her dumb-blonde charade, Monroe was whip-sharp, and Einstein had bodily urges as well as brains. People are irreducible and, for all their achievements, Johnson insists that each of the four has a personal history. Their first orgasms are as meaningful as their hit films. It’s all, yep, relative.

At the same time, celebrity and history butt heads. Oliver Hembrough‘s slack-jawed sportsman might measure his self-worth in baseball cards, but even at the height of his fame, he leaves little mark, while Tom Mannion’s stern, straight-shooting senator has power enough to shape the world and its future. Einstein, honing in on his theory of everything, might merely describe the universe without affecting it, but Simon Prouse’s shuffling sadness suggests his wrestle with his role in nuclear warfare.

Are those hundreds of thousands of deaths any more or less significant than the one we witness onstage? Monroe becomes the centre of David Mercatali’s production, lending it a feminist bent, and Alice Bailey Johnson (daughter of the playwright) artfully suggests the way she slips into a constructed identity with coy shoulder-shimmies and flirtatious raised eyebrows. Her legacy, perhaps, is to leave an imprint on her gender – still out-influenced 60 years on.

Mercatali’s production never finds the requisite slipperiness. Since Max Dorey’s suite is so flimsy and fake – its walls wobbling with every knock on the door, its window looking out onto the Arcola’s brick wall – we’re never allowed to forget that this is a fiction being performed. That brings the impersonations into view, instead of the personalities, only serving to up our scepticism. Johnson’s play needs the opposite: a way of persuading us of its possibility until we submit to a fantasy that’s too tantalising to resist. Without that wooziness, it seems strangely flat – a stage show, little more – and so loses the lightness this fancy needs to take flight.

Insignificance runs at the Arcola until 18 November.