Roald Hoffmann

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Andy Jordan Productions in association with Francis Finlay presents
by Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffman
now playing until December 1

As Carl Djerassi comments in the programme, until now there have been few productions of ‘science-in-theatre’ plays. He cites Michael Frayn’s COPENHAGEN and Steven Poliakoff’s BLINDED BY THE SUN as two notable examples in recent times. Djerassi and his co-writer Roald Hoffmann, both scientists, attempt to redress the balance with their exploration of the discovery of oxygen. The play’s themes are writ large (it is hard to think of what could be a more universal subject than the air we breathe), and central to the drama are the two questions, what is discovery in science and why is it so important for a scientist to be first? It is perhaps inevitable that in the Riverside’s intimate studio space the grandiose themes come across as somewhat muted and one cannot help feeling that this debate play, in part a costume drama and fairly traditional in form and staging, would be better suited to the West End.

In Andy Jordan’s astutely directed production, we shift in time between 1777 and 2001. In Stockholm 2001, a Retro Nobel Prize Committee is set up to celebrate the centenary of the prize by establishing a new award that honours an invention or discovery made before 1901, that had a lasting impact on mankind. Three contenders are shortlisted, each with their own champion from the committee: Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (Paul Goodwin), Joseph Priestley (Jack Klaff) and Carl Wilhelm Scheele (Robert Demeger) all of whom laid claim to having discovered oxygen. The three male committee members set about collecting evidence to irrefutably prove that their contender is the most deserving. The play then mixes their findings, complete with slide shows, with a reconstruction of the three scientists’ interwoven lives and their meeting in Stockholm in 1777.

This is a well-balanced play in a number of respects. Although there is a lot to take in, Djerassi and Hoffman keep the language simple. The play informs and entertains in equal measure. The three scientists and their individual contributions are given equal weight; I cannot imagine audience members will unanimously agree on who should be the winner. The parts for the actors are fairly divided, in terms of stage time and character development. In addition, Djerassi and Hoffman have created some strong female characters; the three wives of the scientists are all strongly opinionated, in particular Lavoisier’s wife, Marie Anne (Lucy Davenport) who shares his passion for chemistry. Professor Astrid Rosenqvist (Geraldine Fitzgerald) proves a wily Chair of the Committee and her PhD student, Ulla Zorn (Catherine Cusack) who, we learn, holds the trump card in the debate.

It is also a verbose play and for the five actors playing two characters, from the past and the present, it is not always easy to make the transition smoothly in terms of shifts in accent and demeanour. The numerous scene changes are a little slow and clunky but all of this would no doubt be ironed out on a bigger stage.

Ultimately O2 OXYGEN proves a provocative and insightful evening’s entertainment. Shifting between the two periods, a picture is slowly built up of three eminent scientists all of whom contributed to an understanding of the air we breathe. Scheele may have discovered oxygen (‘fire-air’), but Priestley was the first to publish his findings (on ‘dephlogisticated air’) and Lavoisier was the first to truly understand (and give the name to) oxygen. In different ways, all three prove themselves worthy of the accolade “Father of the Chemical Revolution”.

Reviews by Lucy Popescu for Theatreworld Internet Magazine