Quantum leap onto stage for Hawking's 'History'

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

More than 25 million people bought the book. It is not known how many managed to read it. But Stephen Hawking's fiendishly brilliant treatise, A Brief History of Time, the story of how the universe began, has now been turned into theatre.

More than 25 million people bought the book. It is not known how many managed to read it. But Stephen Hawking's fiendishly brilliant treatise, A Brief History of Time, the story of how the universe began, has now been turned into theatre.

What Michael Frayn did for the subject of nuclear fusion with the award-winning play, Copenhagen, the playwright Robin Hawdon is attempting to repeat on behalf of black holes and the Big Bang.

"I read [the book] many years ago when it first came out and was intrigued, fascinated. It took a couple of readings to understand even the majority of what was being said. But I vaguely thought even then that there was dramatic significance," said Hawdon.

He then read a biography of Professor Hawking, the physicist and cosmologist as famous for his defiance of the debilitating effects of motor neurone disease as for the astounding rigour of his intellect. The idea emerged of discussing some of the most exciting scientific theories of recent times in conversations with him.

Stephen Boxer, the actor most recently seen in Rough Treatment and Grafters on television, takes the role of the 58-year-old professor, whose extraordinary life - he was given just two or three years to live after diagnosis of the disease during his student days at Oxford - forms the backdrop to the debate. God is also present in this debate - played by the actor Robert Hardy, who also doubles as Isaac Newton, the Pope and Albert Einstein, in what is set to be one of the more challenging theatrical experiences of the summer.

Hardy said: "It compares with nothing. It's like trying to do Hamlet and Lear in one night. The sheer demands of the part are extraordinary. I had the [Hawking] book and had started it and I thought, rather like listening to Bach, I shall do that in my later years. I think I'll go back to it now. I'm no scientist but I have finally got my head round the ideas, as far as I'm able.

"There's a giant interest in what makes the universe tick and what makes us tick these days such as there wasn't in my childhood at all."

The play, which is directed by Jonathan Church, will open at the Theatre Royal, Bath, next month, before a nationwide tour. It has been produced without the professor's specific consent, but there has been extensive communication with Prof Hawking's personal assistant at Cambridge University and Hawdon believes that the academic does not object, even if he does not give the project his blessing.

"He is keeping himself fairly distant from it. He's a private person and he looks on the whole enterprise as another impingement," Hawdon said. "I don't think he's particularly interested in the fact that he's going to be put on the stage. He has had the script and he hasn't criticised the content at all so I'm assuming that most of it is pretty accurate."

The first draft of the play was written long before Hawdon saw Frayn's Copenhagen, still running in the West End, which explores the Second World War meeting of physicists Heisenberg and Bohr in Nazi-occupied Denmark and their interest in nuclear power. But now Hawdon has seen Frayn's play and says he finds the example heartening.

"It is very encouraging to think that Copenhagen has been such a success without any big stars and dealing with quite complicated subject matter. When you think that Hawking's book has sold 25 million copies, there's a vast hunger to understand all these strange concepts of black holes and relativity and a universe with no boundaries. I attempt to explain to the ordinary man in the street what they all mean."

The production marks a shift in tone for Hawdon, who is best known as the author of the stage comedies, Don't Dress for Dinner, Birthday Suite, and The Mating Game.

Comments