Terry Johnson’s play, first staged in 1982 at The Royal Court and adapted for screen in 1985, is a mediation on fame and humanity through four figures in a hotel room in 1950s America. Their names are never spoken but we are in no doubt we are in the presence of Albert Einstein, Joseph McCarthy, Joe DiMaggio and (still) the most famous woman in the world: Marilyn Monroe. We are in no doubt because we know them from costume and context, from legend and motivational quotations and Pinterest (well, hopefully not so much McCarthy, though ‘All-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity.’ would look great in 10pt Helvetica over some sepia mountains). But who, whilst we’re on the subject of quotes, exactly said what? Or, how well do you know your Monroe quotes?
“Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world.”
No Marilyn never said that, Bette Midler did.
Alice Bailey Johnson, a refreshingly sick-of-your-shit Monroe, bursts into Einstein’s hotel room, fresh from filming that upskirt shot. She explains his theory of relativity, in return he shows her his legs. If the idea of Monroe as smart comes as a shock, then that is more revelatory to us than to her. She’s manic but she’s no pixie and she’s no dream. Acting out theorems with toy trains and flashlights, her face moves between beguiling little-girl siren to flashes of angry intelligence.
“A sex symbol is a heavy load to carry when one is tired, hurt and bewildered.”
Nah, that one’s Clara Bow.
Marilyn is tired and hurt. So is Einstein. When McCarthy reproaches the scientist’s unwillingness to cooperate – ‘but you CHOSE to come to America’ – a calm, innately charming Simon Rouse retorts ‘No, I chose to escape Dachau’. Einstein is burdened by the thin line between academic speculation and responsibility for its impact, haunted by Hiroshima less than ten years past, perhaps glimpsing the first flames of the Cuban Missile crisis less than ten years’ hence. Einstein wants to choose calculations, not feelings, even if those calculations can lead humanity to terrible things.
“If you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best.”
Nope, afraid that wasn’t her either.
DiMaggio (Oliver Hembrough) can’t handle his wife wanting to fuck Einstein’s brain. He’s pure touch-of-feral Labrador, simultaneously playful and menacing. His stupidity makes him unpredictable. His masculinity confused and toxic.
“I don’t mind living in a man’s world as long as I can be a woman in it.”
Oh, that one’s true I’m afraid.
While only one might be a film star, all these famous faces have been commoditised and used to push an agenda. “I must have been in million bubble gum packs, you know they take bubble gum and coffee down to the Amazon tribes now?” Di Maggio boasts to Einstein, “I was on the Lucky Strike ‘scientific greats’ series,” the genius concurs. But it is Monroe who flutters and burns at the edge of powerful and powerless. Tom Mannion’s McCarthy personifies misogynistic moralising as he addresses Monroe as the whore he has constructed her as in his solipsist imagination: “I could make you beg to bring me toast.”
“Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are.”
Afraid not, that’s Kurt Cobain.
Insignificance pushes to be a play it isn’t; it’s a brilliant piece of writing that here feels overwrought. 99% of this is down to the overly cinematic staging. This hotel room is no hotel room in the history of the world, with a chair in each far corner, pointed towards the bed as if awaiting a cam show. Combined with the space given to the under-used balcony, the effect is to cut the Arcola stage down so much that the actors are constantly crossing over each other in forced configurations and horrid sightlines.
Einstein explains to Monroe that truth is arrived at through agreement. We have an agreed shorthand in life for what constitutes a genius, a patriot, a whore, a man. The dude sat next to me was engaged in mansplaining Monroe to his date, even as the interval lights had still to come up: “You see, she had sex with ALL the Presidents Einstein just mentioned.” He only understood one facet of what he had been shown. Monroe did write the following, from one of her many fragmentary poems:
“Only parts of us will ever
touch parts of others …”
Only parts of humanity get to trickle through what we think we know about famous people. As Einstein said, “But truth is understanding everything you know, not the destination you reach when you know everything.”
Except Einstein never said that. Terry Johnson did.
Insignificance is on until 18 November 2017 at the Arcola Theatre. Click here for more details.