From the start of his exploration of the scientific method, through the prism of the 17th century rivalry between Isaac Newton and the now little-remembered Robert Hooke, playwright Lucas Hnath gets his retaliation in first. Just as Isaac Newton used the concept of an Ether-filled universe to explain how objects moved, despite (as we now know) there being no such thing, Hnath’s script purposely uses lies to “explain the things that are true”.
This production of Isaac’s Eye from the Edinburgh University Theatre Company, running as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, certainly has its plus points
The most theatrical “lie”, in this respect, is the meeting between a 20-year-old Newton, desperate for membership of the Royal Society (and all the social and scientific advancement that would bring) and Hooke, the rival who could help get him in. This face-to-face encounter takes up much of the play but, as we’re told on several occasions by the “Actor” (who introduces the play, announces scene numbers and becomes supporting characters as and when they’re required), it never actually happened. The men didn’t meet until much later, and their conflict was largely carried out via correspondence.
So why does Hnath focus on a meeting that never happened, and the two men’s relationships with Catherine, the woman here who comes between them and yet never existed? Both highlight the contrast in approach between the two rivals; Newton’s rationalism, his conclusions largely based on reason alone, set up against Hooke’s empiricism, grounded in repeated—and repeatable—experimentation. Added to this is the presentation of Newton as almost autistic, contrasted with the drug-taking, womanising Hooke. One is disconnected from the world, the other dangerously involved—though each is certainly willing to “fight nasty” to get what they want.
This production of Isaac’s Eye from the Edinburgh University Theatre Company, running as part of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, certainly has its plus points: Rob Younger is particularly engaging as the Actor, while Jacob Brown successfully embodies the gawky man-child whose self-belief—that his ideas are the ideas of God—has long-lost any innocent charm. Peter Morrison navigates us from initial antipathy towards Hooke to at least a better understanding of the man’s frailties. Sadly, Philippa Iles is given less to do; nor does she entirely convince us of someone who sees Newton as husband material.
Hnath’s play comes with a swagger that Amy McMonagle’s production, directed by Carmen Macron, doesn’t always maintain, but it remains a fascinating exploration of how, ultimately, the universe inevitably outsmarts us all. The title comes from Newton’s idea of poking a needle into his tear duct to prove that light is made up of particles; that it is not, as Hooke believes, a wave. As the Actor points out, though, they were actually both right!