God And Stephen Hawking | The Playhouse, Derby

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The last time I saw Robert Hardy on stage it was in Paris, where he was doing a brilliant, bilingual impersonation of Winston Churchill in an epic about De Gaulle. The last time he appeared on television, it was as Kingsley Amis in a lethal reading of the Old Devil's letters. Churchill, the Old Devil - how could the ascent possibly continue? That's right, up to God - an entity he now portrays in God And Stephen Hawking, though it only takes a few minutes of Robin Hawdon's extraordinarily misconceived play to make you seriously question whether this really counts as a genuine promotion.

The last time I saw Robert Hardy on stage it was in Paris, where he was doing a brilliant, bilingual impersonation of Winston Churchill in an epic about De Gaulle. The last time he appeared on television, it was as Kingsley Amis in a lethal reading of the Old Devil's letters. Churchill, the Old Devil - how could the ascent possibly continue? That's right, up to God - an entity he now portrays in God And Stephen Hawking, though it only takes a few minutes of Robin Hawdon's extraordinarily misconceived play to make you seriously question whether this really counts as a genuine promotion.

The scientist who is the human subject of this farrago has already condemned the piece in Physics World as "deeply offensive and an invasion of my privacy". Not even his worst enemies would, you feel, demur. It's not that the piece is any systematic sense condemnatory. The insult, rather, is that it subjects Hawking to the humiliation of taking part in a rigged, bogus, clumsily written debate. A joky travesty of the idea of a personal God (here presented as a blazered clubland bore, roguishly aware that he might not exist) is pitted against a grossly presumptuous depiction of the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics (here presented as the Symbol of Science: mind over disabled matter; a great brain in an increasingly irrelevant body; and cerebral hubris pushed to the point of family-wounding inhumanity).

If Hawking has his work cut out trying to unify relativity and quantum mechanics in a grand Theory of Everything, Hawdon's play - and Jonathan Church's plucky production - are certainly up against it, as they struggle to make a satisfying whole of the contending objective and subjective elements in the piece. True, Stephen Boxer turns in a compelling and uncanny performance as the scientist, taking him from the gawky geek of an undergraduate to the stubborn, single-minded, computer-voiced figure of today. But to make his debate with God intelligible, the show has to offer a hectic crash course in physics, with Robert Hardy portraying everybody from Newton and Einstein to (I'm not joking) the Pope and the Queen, as the notion of a fixed universe gives way to that of a universe expanding from Big Bang. The result is a kind of revue-cum-lantern lecture, interspersed with a prurient, soap opera account of Hawking's first marriage.

Robin Hawdon, whose back catalogue includes such intellectually testing works as The Mating Game and Don't Dress For Dinner, has argued that his play only uses intimate details when they are relevant to the dialectic. But this is disingenuous. For a start, the opposition between his spouse's devout Christianity and Hawking's agnosticism is scripted in a way that makes them both sound like crass cliché-machines ("You can't go to the ultimate end, my darling, you aren't God"). Still worse, however, is the implication that Hawking's admittedly callous and self-centred treatment of this woman somehow discredits his science. "He's really beginning to sound like me, isn't he?" quips Hardy's deity at one point. Hawdon has said, of Hawking's complaints about the script, that "it must be very difficult to read about yourself with an objective eye". And easy-peasy for guess who to view that life "objectively"? The final irony of this show is that it is Robin Hawdon who is playing God with Stephen Hawking.

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