Oxygen, Riverside Studios, London

A mechanical science lesson
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The Independent Culture

Plays about science are proliferating, with Michael Frayn, Tom Stoppard and Stephen Poliakoff heading the pack of dramatists prepared to find inspiration outside the comfort zone of the humanities. It's not every day, though, you get the chance to review a theatre piece co-authored by a Nobel chemistry laureate and the man who invented the Pill. This, though, is now the case with Oxygen, a collaboration between Roald Hoffman (who is also professor of humane letters at Cornell) and Carl Djerassi (who, in addition to synthesising the first oral contraceptive, and winning medals for novel approaches to insect control,is a published poet).

This year marks the centenary of the Nobel Prize. Receiving its English premiere now in Andy Jordan's strongly cast but slightly cramped production, the play kicks off from the idea that, to mark this occasion, the committee has decided to award "retro-Nobels" for great discoveries made before the inception of the prizes. In chemistry, the first of these is to go to the discoverer of oxygen. But should this post-dated laureateship go to the Swedish apothecary, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, or to English unitarian minister, Joseph Priestley (who erected a false theory on his findings), or to the French chemist and tax collector, Antoine Lavoisier? Which is the same as to ask: what constitutes "being first" – the initial physical discovery; pipping everyone else to the publishing post; or having the deepest understanding of the scientific implications?

In a manner patented by Stoppard's Arcadia and Shelagh Stephenson's An Experiment with an Air Pump, the play shifts between present and past: here, between the deliberations of the committee and an imaginary meeting of the three protagonists in Stockholm in 1777, where they are shown vying for the King's Gold Medal. The structure is ambitious, even incorporating the performance of a verse masque on "The Victory of Vital Air Over Phlogiston". The temporal oscillations and the doubling of the actors (with Paul Goodwin an especially convincing intellectual as Lavoisier/ Hjalmarsson) allow the piece to demonstrate that it's plus ca change amongst scientists – a preoccupation with the priority continuing to divide the contemporary chemists. But there's a disappointing thinness of texture to the dispute here over whether the referee on a scientific journal postponed, with needless provisos, the publication of a paper, while passing on its findings to a group of rival scientists. Better playwrights have employed this to-and-fro structure for a more profound questioning of "progress" than one couched in narrowly professional terms, while, in Stoppard, it has even been used as the means of setting up an imaginative resistance to science's gloomy entropic predictions.

Oxygen begins piquantly with the spouses of the three 18th-century boffins chatting in a Swedish sauna. But this is no Merry Wives of Stockholm. Its aim, rather, is to show how these clever women could go only so far and no further in participating in their husbands' work. Through the clunking device of a contemporary PhD graduate who is amanuensis to the Nobel committee and author of a study of chemists' better halves, the play uncovers the deeply ambiguous (yet, in the circumstances, understandable) way in which Lucy Davenport's superbly flirtatious and enigmatic Mme Lavoisier sought to assist her husband. Again, though, better dramatists have deployed the structure to show how the present is comically inclined to misinterpret the past. Here, the historical evidence would seem to be tricky but free from all dubieties. That's one of several indications that the primary impulse of this honourable and rather mechanical play is pedagogic.

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