Reviews Plymouth Published 18 April 2012

A History of Everything

Drum Theatre ⋄ 12th - 28th April 2012

The passage of time.

Belinda Dillon

In attempting to cover every major event, scientific discovery and philosophical milestone, from the Big Bang to the present day (backwards!), in little over 100 minutes, Belgian theatre collective Ontroerend Goed have set themselves an ambitious task. Impossible, it might even seem. And yet, they pull it off ­ with intelligence, wit and a very satisfying dose of irreverence, allowing us to contemplate our place in the universe, insignificant as it is, and come away uplifted.

With the world spread out, atlas-style, across the otherwise bare, black stage, the seven performers root us in the present day, a projection at the rear of the stage confirming the date, 16th April 2012: “Today, in Norway, Anders Breivik went on trial for the murder of 77 people. He pleaded not guilty, claiming self defence.” And so begins a dizzying hurtle through days, weeks, months and years, the calendar counting down continuously while the actors hurl out soundbites, statistics and front-page news in a heteroglossial mash that reflects the information overload exemplifying 21st-century existence. Meanwhile, one actor moves quietly across continents, placing a sign bearing the word ‘WAR’ in conflict zones, sobering in their multitude; atrocities occur daily on a local and global scale; brands and celebrities dominate. Modern life really is rubbish.

Of course, this is ‘a’ history of everything, the events chosen revealing a particularly Western bias, and the universal is continually distilled to the personal in a number of ways: as the years fall away, individual performers mark their birth dates by showing baby pictures; when we hit World War II, one tells us that her grandmother hid resistance fighters from advancing troops. It could all too easily turn into a gimmicky History 101, but the strength of the performances and the sheer ingenuity of the staging prevent this. The solemnity with which certain events ­ the Holocaust, Hiroshima and Nagasaki ­ are treated is a reminder of their continuing power over our collective conscience. In channelling the words of Dawkins, Eagleman and Darwin, among others, the piece highlights the scientific rather than the religious aspects of human endeavour, and so celebrates the seemingly limitless capabilities of our imagination.

As the centuries fall away, so the pace slows, and we are treated to some tantalising tableaux, including Botticelli¹s Birth of Venus, complete with angelic puffs of wind. Medical breakthroughs come and go, the written word is revered then wiped away, we witness the first burial and the first milking of a cow. At some point around 5,000 years ago, the cast muses, was when it all might have started to go wrong?

The director, Alexander Devriendt, has said that in writing a show about a history of everything, he wanted to tell the story backwards “so that humanity wouldn’t seem the purpose of everything that happened before it”. As our shadow retreats, and we get back to the tectonic majesty of Pangea, to single cells throbbing with simple life, we are faced with the realisation that the universe is utterly oblivious to our daily miseries and joys, cares and concerns. As the planets bob through the darkness in a strangely beautiful light show, only to be swallowed up in a dazzling burst of anti-creation, it’s hard not to be moved. And to marvel at just how incredible it is that we came to exist at all.

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Belinda Dillon

Originally from London, Belinda is an editor and writer now living in Exeter. She goes to as much theatre as the day job will allow. When not sitting in the dark, or writing about sitting in the dark, she likes to drink wine, read 19th-century novels and practice taxidermy. Your cat is very beautiful. Is it old?

A History of Everything Show Info


Produced by Ontroerend Goed, Drum Theatre, Richard Jordan Productions and Sydney Theatre Company

Directed by Alexander Devriendt

Written by Alexander Devriendt and Joeri Smet

Cast includes Cameron Goodall, Charlotte De Bruyne, Joeri Smet and Karolien De Bleser

Link http://www.theatreroyal.com/

Running Time 1 hr 40 mins (no interval)

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