I’m late. I’m running out of Notting Hill tube towards the Gate Theatre, being bundled through a messy dressing room, making awkward conversation with a really sweet steward in a darkened corridor, and finally being let in to Lorne Campbell and Sandy Grierson’s Tenet at what is meant to be an opportune moment. What this means, in fact, is being directed to the second row of a brightly lit auditorium full of people who look at me and laugh. From the stage, Julian Assange – played by Lucy Ellinson – offers me a cup of tea and a biscuit.
A rehearsal of the pivotal moments in the life of nineteenth century mathematician Evariste Galois, Tenet blocks out a timeline of his brief existence, throwing in some algebra, philosophy, politics and tea for good measure. It’s hard to get to grips with what’s at stake here, and not just because I missed the first two minutes. Is this an existential commentary told through obscure mathematical metaphors, a reaction to the Wikileaks scandal, or a character narrative on Galois? In hedging its bets, Tenet has become all of those things in half-measures, lacking the conviction to follow through on any.
The production is bold in its challenge to sentimental character-theatre, presenting a non-patronising, cross-disciplinary rootle around one man’s impact on history and philosophy. It is bold too in its form, Ellinson’s slick winks and hip, laconic charisma setting the tone for an execution that has the deftness and symmetry of an algebraic equation. But it’s structurally unsound, its commitment-phobic evasion of genre undermining its potential to really capture its audience.
The piece skips between scenes from 1820s France and a kind of self-reflexive present day (of which Assange is the master of ceremonies) in a mise en abyme system which is too blurred to provide any substantial structure. Visual cues work best, like Garance Marneur’s stunning Constructivist set and on-stage model box; stylish realisations of the theatrical square-root theory (translation: the square root is a number within a number; the stage is a world within a world). Every now and then, this set-up is loosely explained by the actors in terms of mathematically simplifying radicals and polynomial equations. Still confused?
Most of this explaining is left up to Jon Foster, who plays Galois, and who works hard to inject energy and physicality into dry, abstract tracts on algebra and equations. References to the “radical” sound promising and dangerous, but aren’t enough to hold together what is essentially a maths lesson with some pseudo-philosophical metaphors wrung forthwith. Set beside Ellinson’s coolly understated Assange, Foster is charming, but fighting an uphill battle against a somewhat parched text. His industrious demonstrations are all too reminiscent of a first-day teacher, the shouty, sweaty enthusiasm lost on Ellinson’s refrigerated disdain and a perplexed audience.
The performance relies heavily on audience participation, which is good-natured and often very funny (I even got a hug). On the nought-to-1960s scale of dubious spect-actor experiments (that is, French windows and concrete fourth walls to Paradise Now), Tenet veered from respectably amusing stand-up style interaction (“Got any teachers in tonight?”), to let’s-hold-hands-and-sing levels of painful awkwardness. I know – it’s society’s fault, we’re just not liberated enough for experimental theatre. But be gentle with us, and steer clear of gratuitousness. We’ll get there.
Read Exeunt’s account of Greyscale in rehearsal.