You have to wonder a little why Lucy Kirkwood’s new play (at the Dorfman, National Theatre, directed by the NT’s head honcho, Rufus Norris) is called Mosquitoes. The nasty wee beasties are the special research interest of one of the minor characters in this drama of love and loss against a background of trailblazing science – and his big idea is to wipe out malaria by targeting “the mosquito at the point in its life cycle that it actually becomes dangerous.” To which his interlocutor replies: “Kill the old and save the young! It’s brilliant.” In one way, however, it’s a conceit too far; the converse happens in this gripping few hours in the round, with its sometimes alarming theatrical bells and whistles (by designer Katrina Lindsay, lighting designer Paule Constable, composer Adam Cork and video designers Finn Ross and Ian William Galloway) representing nothing less than the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs Boson particle.
Kirkwood, the hugely gifted 30-something British playwright who has previously given us the post-Tiananmen Square Chimerica and the post-Apocalypse The Children, now takes us to Geneva where a pair of sisters, Jenny, played by Olivia Colman and Alice, played by Olivia Williams, prove that their mutual chemistry is at least as worthy of our attention as the greatest-ever experiment in high energy particle physics, which is going on under their feet. It’s not just incidents of sibling rivalry set against the hunt for the Higgs Boson; it’s the children who suffer collateral damage.
Alice is a physicist working at CERN in Geneva, whose husband has left her and their clever son Luke; he hates his school and is having the sort of troubled adolescence only made possible by the invention of the smartphone. He is superbly portrayed by Joseph Quinn, who captures exactly the gawky body language of a 17-year-old boy, and adds to it just enough abrupt movement that we wonder whether he isn’t a touch on the spectrum himself. Though warm and motherly, Alice is sacrificing Luke, who longs to return to England, to her own career. She appears to be stable, with her black Swiss boyfriend, Henri (Yoli Fuller), and the respect of her colleagues. The two Olivias are the stars of the moment, and Kirkwood has made them opposites. Alice’s insecurities and emotional wobbles only emerge slowly in the course of the play; Jenny wears hers on the sleeves of the coat she wears on her trip with their mother, Karen, from Luton to Geneva in September, 2008.
They’ve come because Jenny is “in grief” for the loss of her infant daughter. But the timing is not entirely convenient for Alice, as the day of their arrival is the very day the massed scientists are expecting to detect the first beam of protons racing around the Hadron Collider. Kirkwood has written a puzzling scene in which a vain TV journalist, who thinks she understands the science, tries to get one of the boffins to admit that they might have constructed a “black hole factory,” which will result in Armageddon.
It takes a little recollection in tranquillity to see that this is parallel to Jenny’s situation. Her daughter has died because she believed the wicked doctor (so recently in the news), and the naïve, vile campaign linking the MMRI vaccine with autism (which began with a fraudulent research paper in 1998), and did not have her baby inoculated with the MMRI vaccine. Who is to blame? Jenny, for getting and believing her “information” from Googling? (Is Jenny really as thick as Alice so frequently says she is – as reflected in Jenny reminding Alice of her prejudice that “I’m Forrest Gump and you’re the Wizard of fucking Oz”) Or, as Jenny says, is Alice to blame for not insisting that the baby be immunised – as Alice is the only person from whom Jenny would take orders? But is the play’s centre the quality of information – the science-blind fools who prattle on about creating black holes and vaccines causing autism? Or is it the family bonds – between the sisters, between them and their mother, Karen (a fine performance by Amanda Boxer), or between Luke and his mother and aunt? Karen, who fears encroaching dementia, has her own family issues – she blames her scientist husband for cheating her of the Nobel Prize that was rightly hers. Poor Luke has his problems, too. Betrayed by his attractive, intelligent sixteen-year-old, sexting girlfriend, his amour propre is restored by his Aunt Jenny in an inspired comic scene, almost as melancholy-funny as the spanking administered to Jenny herself by her aged mother.
There is another major character in the play, called the Boson (Paul Hilton)– he’s the Higgs, ok, but there’s a hint that he’s also Alice’s estranged husband and Luke’s father. The ambiguity is pleasing, but the character’s role less so. It’s The Boson’s job to set the scientific scene, starting with the Creation in Act I and going on to list “five ways for the world to end” in Act III, in a two-page monologue. The tech guys do a wonderful job of illustrating his speech with sound, lights and projections – but my sole criticism of this riveting drama is how much better it would be if this necessary narrative task had been achieved in dialogue. There’s an enormous amount of sheer information that has to be conveyed by Rufus Norris’s production, and while The Boson might not be the ideal means of doing this, the staging is elastic and crisp. Although it’s hard to imagine a less likely or more moving account of dysfunctional family chemistry against a background of particle physics, like all the best plays involving science, from Faustus to Copenhagen, Lucy Kirkwood succeeds in making the far-fetched feel awfully familiar.