Even the rain could not dampen the enthusiasm of the opening night crowd at the newly refurbished Bille Brown Theatre. We were all here to see the world premiere of David Williamson’s new play ‘Nearer The Gods’. It was a night of firsts for many of us – a first look at the beautifully renovated space, the first time this new play has been performed and the first time the theatre was not watched over by the looming portrait of Bille Brown.
Don’t worry, he’s off having a little touch up, but is still here in the most unique way. You see, Bille’s ashes are actually part of this beautiful building’s walls and how the flamboyant actor would have loved this opening night. There were dignitaries, sparkles, flowing champagne, laughter and a frisson of excitement. And that was all before we were even invited inside, to watch this exciting new work from Queensland’s most iconic playwright, being performed by some of the best in the business.
I have always loved the cosiness of the Bille Brown Theatre but walking in last night it felt as though a rather gawky teenager had finally grown up. The new theatre is sleek and slick, all black and timber, shiny, new and spacious and that’s just the foyer.There is even a box office where David Williamson himself was standing right behind me picking up his tickets. Hopefully some of his writing magic rubbed off on me.The Library is gone, but the spacious area is now a beautiful bar and function space spilling out into the courtyard, with that nurturing bottle tree dressed for an opening night, showing off her curves and sparkling with a million fairy- lights.
Upstairs the magic continued with a quintessential Queensland deck where another party was in full swing. You can reach it via stairs or a lift and there are now two doors to enter the theatre. Upon entering the theatre you are stunned by the darkness- dark stage, dark walls, dark chairs, before your eyes adjust and you see all of the subtle touches. It’s a corner stage and the front row seems part of the stage as well, five entrances ensure the actors can make the best use of the stage, mesh hangs from the ceiling so the crew can perform all manner of magical feats by walking out above the space and there are lovely tributes on each chair, from patrons, past and present.
I wanted to cry when the stage became lit by a thousand stars. It was beautiful and the gasps from other audience members confirmed the effectiveness of this starry, starry night. Architects Conrad Garrett and Hutchinson builders should be so proud of their work on this now world-class theatre where they’ve managed to still retain a certain Queensland quality.
The theatre was opened by Deputy Premier Jackie Trad and fittingly Minister for Science, the Arts, the Environment and the Great Barrier Reef – Leeanne Enoch who gave the toast. In the crowd I spied Dame Quentin Bryce, Actor Christen O’Leary, the towering playwright David Williamson, Opposition Leader John Paul Langbroek, former Masterchef contestant Danielle Dickson, television presenter Laurel Edwards and Olympic decathlete Cedric Dubler (Cedric’s brother Yanni is a champion in his own right being Assistant Stage Manager at Queensland Theatre). An eclectic mix of people,who were all buzzing about the new look, the play and the actors gracing the stage.
Directed by Sam Strong ‘Nearer The Gods’ is a play about Science and great scientific minds but it is so much more than that. It tells of relationships and fragile egos, it forces us to question our beliefs, it unravels the role of individual effort as opposed to a team effort and shows the forces of power, personality and rivalry which inform every field of human endeavour. It’s easy to look up to these names from the past as infallible geniuses but they were human and driven by human emotions, desire, greed and ego. In this play they are laid bare and we see the human side of the players behind the grand theories.
Williamson says, “ When I was at Monash University, as an engineering graduate, the only thing that left a lasting impression was the brilliance of Sir Isaac Newton, whose laws underpinned everything we were taught.”
Williamson had never thought of writing a play about science until he started reading about it, “ I found to my amazement , that but for Edmund Halley, of Halley’s Comet Fame, the greatest leap forward in human knowledge we’ve ever been gifted would never have happened. And he couldn’t have done it without the assistance of his wife Mary’s keen mind.” Go Mary!
Newton was quite mad and clashed bitterly with Robert Hooke (Robert who?), a jealous scientist, who could not bear the thought that there was someone brighter than he was out there. King Charles the Second championed discovery and science but was father to 14 illegitimate children and fickle in his favours. Edmund Halley was a brilliant young astronomer who had to balance his enthusiasm for his scientific work with the day- to – days needs of a growing family. This play is their story, the human story behind the greatest discoveries of our time.
Take a bow Rhys Muldoon! If you’ve watched Rhys on ‘House Husbands’ or ‘ Playschool’ you already know he can act , but you will develop a new-found respect for this simply lovely man’s talents when you watch him play the crazy, troubled genius Sir Isaac Newton. His performance is mesmerising from the opening scenes where he scribbles away quietly at his desk, through to his burgeoning friendship with young Halley, through to the vehemence with which he hates bitter rival James Hooke and on to the Eureka moments when his theory is finally proven. His believable and sympathetic portrayal of this gifted but eccentric character was a revelation.
Matthew Backer plays an enthusiastic Edmund Halley and makes the role his own. He is strongly supported by the talented Kimie Tsuakoshi making her debut for Queensland Theatre. Brisbane’s own William McInnes is commanding in the role of King Charles II and his sense of fun shines through. It’s obvious he relishes playing this role in his home state.
I loved the exuberance of Daniel Murphy playing the dual roles of Isaac Barrow/ Samuel Pepys. The villain of the piece is Colin Smith as Robert Hooke and he gets the balance of jealousy and gravitas just right in his performance. QT stalwart Hugh Parker plays go between Sir Christopher Wren with restraint and finesse.
With Hsiao-Ling Tang and Lucas Stibbard both outstanding playing a variety of roles, this strong ensemble cast captures the audience until the end.
‘Nearer The Gods’ will be playing at the shiny, new Bille Brown Theatre until November 3. To see one of the finest casts in Australia, performing one of our foremost playwright’s original stories, head to the Bille Brown Theatre and see this beauty for yourself. You will be amazed, transported and transfixed. I hope, like me, that you’ll leave with stars in your eyes.