Insignificance, Arcola Theatre – Review


“Have you ever noticed how ‘What the hell’ is always the right decision to make?”
The Actress, Insignificance

September 15th, 1954. A professor staying at the St. Regis hotel in New York is visited in the early hours by a persistent senator. Initially avoiding overt pressure, it becomes clear that the sentator’s ‘request’ for the professor to appear before the House of Un-American Activities is ‘non-negotiable’. The senator leaves intending to return at 8am to pick him up… A short time later, the professor receives a knock on his door. A famous actress who has just finished filming a scene over a subway grating on Lexington Avenue, wants to escape the male ent­­­ourage that’s been following her­­­­. She’s also come to see the professor with a very specific purpose…

Written by Terry Johnson and directed by David Mercaltali, Insignificance‘s revival is the first time it’s been staged in London for 20 years. Just as playwright James Graham has made a name with plays based on recent real events with a political dimension, similarly, a recurring theme within Terry Johnson’s oeuvre is the untold story of famous people – often involving celebrities meeting each other who are disparate in terms of background and interests, but could have conceivably met.

Photo by Alex Brenner
Simon Rouse and Alice Bailey Johnson / All photos © Alex Brenner

As ‘the Senator’, Tom Mannion brings a degree of humanity to McCarthy – initially civil and relatively level-headed, only to show his true colours later. Because of this progression, the behaviour of this well-known figure is all the more shocking in the second half. When the origins of the Second World War can be attributed to the Soviet Union rather than the rise of the Third Reich, a skewed perspective is expected from such a figure. But as he demonstrates with the Ball Player, the Senator’s mind in general is empirically sound. He just chooses to thrive on the climate of fear he creates – not unlike a certain world leader we know today…

As the ‘most famous woman in the world’, Alice Bailey Johnson’s Monroe is only too aware she’s viewed by some as a commodity. As much a figure of her own creation as the film studio’s, Norma Jeane Baker’s alter ego is something she can hide behind, as well as be kept prisoner by. Her meeting with ‘the Professor’ marks a pivotal moment: one icon known for his intellect, the other for her beauty and sex appeal. But unlike many men that ‘know’ her, the Professor in true scientific fashion observes her without making any prior assumptions… Giving her the respect she craves and the chance to prove her intelligence, she in turn offers a one-time offer of a night of love. In many ways, their time together is evocative of a Richard Curtis film, with ‘the Actress’ admitting without saying explicitly that she’s just ‘a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her’…

Photo by Alex Brenner

…Then again, her husband may have something to say on the matter… Oliver Hembrough as Monroe’s husband Joe DiMaggio is in fine comic form as the archetypal sportsman. Not renowned for his intellect, he relishes ‘acting stupid’ to wind people up. Still, as a witness to Monroe’s night shoot at Lexington Avenue, he has more reason than most to be peeved at this incident, the final straw for their nine-month marriage. In his his own way he is devoted to her, but he is not on her wavelength, no matter how hard he tries. Nor sadly can he help her keep a baby until full term… Ironically it is the Ball Player who the Senator is most fearful of – his brawn most of all perhaps, the all-American hero, an apolitical celebrity who can’t be intimidated by status or rhetoric.

Much like Terry Johnson’s Hysteria, the events near the close of the play are of a non-naturalistic note and for all, the beginning of the end. They do, however represent one of the greatest fears of the 20th century and to some degree as much as Einstein’s legacy as Oppenheimer’s…

© Michael Davis 2017

Insignificance runs at the Arcola Theatre until 18th November.

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