Terry Johnson’s play was first performed at the Royal Court in 1982, and was made into a film a few years later – it’s now been revived as part of the Arcola’s current season. Director David Mercatali has pointed out that when Insignificance made its debut 35 years ago, America had elected a celebrity as their President (Ronald Reagan), which obviously connects to our time and the presidency of Donald Trump.
Set in a hotel room in 1954, the play brings together The Professor, The Senator, The Actress and The Ballplayer. None are actually named (“There’s a price to pay for fame; your name’s the price.”) but, such iconic figures as they are, it’s safe to say that we are dealing with Albert Einstein, Joseph McCarthy, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio. It’s an imagined meeting, where Einstein is trying to decide whether to co-operate with McCarthy, Monroe is seeking an escape from her admirers after filming that scene from The Seven Year Itch, and DiMaggio is trying to find his wife. What follows are discussions on fame, people’s perceptions, and life ambitions.
Whilst it has some moments of profundity, and it’s always good for us to question the nature of celebrity, the play is ultimately too bizarre to make any real impact. Understandably, Marilyn is keen to show that she’s more than the dumb blonde that’s depicted in her films, but the whole scene in which she tries to demonstrate her understanding of the Theory of Relativity is incredibly long and on one frantic, shouty level. After all that effort, she reverts to the kind of Marilyn we’d expect, seducing The Professor and only being prevented from going through with it by her husband’s arrival.
There seem to be too many plots and ideas trying to co-exist, ending up with most feeling underdone in order to make more of the Monroe-Einstein encounter. I don’t know what the audience is really supposed to take away from the play, given this odd collection of stories – and the programme notes only providing some information about Marilyn’s image, rather than anything about the other characters (or, indeed, the play itself and its context). Also, I don’t know a lot about McCarthy aside from his anti-Communist stance, but surely it’s completely unnecessary to have him use the n-word and the (other) c-word?
Given that the only female character is The Actress, it might have been more informative to reimagine this kind of scenario and make it more in touch with the here and now.
Max Dorey’s set design is nice: a lovely Art Deco-inspired hotel room, complete with its own large windows and balcony. Simple, yet effective for the production’s needs. Richard Williamson provides some great lighting design, particularly during moments that seem to focus in on two characters – the lighting subtly mirroring this to create an intimate effect.
Alice Bailey Johnson is slightly inconsistent as The Actress, with her Marilyn voice dropping in and out quite erratically – though you cannot fault her enthusiasm for the role. Simon Rouse (The Professor) is the true star of the show, however, with an understated Teutonic accent and terrific comic timing that manages to earn some big laughs. It is a performance full of warmth (and surprises) that just about holds the production together.
My verdict? A slightly confused piece that doesn’t seem to know what it wants to achieve, and feels a bit dated – it definitely lives up to its name.
Insignificance runs at the Arcola Theatre until 18 November 2017. Tickets are available online or from the box office.