Émilie du Châtelet is a fascinating mathematician and physicist of the eighteenth century whose tale and research deserves to be better known. Émilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight, written by Lauren Gunderson, has as a premise the notion that Émilie should come back from the dead to relive key moments of her life, while tallying on a blackboard points for either ‘Love' or ‘Philosophy'.
Eleven One Theatre certainly tries to capture the spirit of the eighteenth century with frequently witty dialogue, gorgeous costumes (Émilie's dress, made out of pages from relevant books, is a particular delight), the find of a real doppelgänger for Voltaire in Nick Quartley, and a creatively-used set. The play's greatest asset is Helen Taylor who plays Émilie with indefatigable wit and strength. Through her, the audience relives the central moments of Émilie's life, including her greatest hits: Dissertation sur la nature et la propagation du feu, Institutions de physique, and her translation of Newton's work, published posthumously, Principes mathématiques de la philosophie naturelle.
The whole conceit that Émilie should be brought back from the dead to relive her life was potentially an exciting one never fully explored, instead the play revolves around the rather more pat conceit of which is best, heart or learning? This unfortunately simplistic dichotomy also has the effect of reducing Émilie's brilliant works in relationship to Voltaire. That a play that purports to celebrate an eighteenth century woman in her own rights still can't help but reduce her work in terms of her most famous lover is deeply unsettling. Another troublesome aspect of the play is the idea that Émilie cannot physically touch any of the characters she interacts with, leading her to use Sara-Jayne Slack as a substitute. This would perhaps work if Slack in any way resembled Taylor in tone, expression, voice, manner, but even so, her instantaneous arrivals to replace Taylor to kiss the (considerably older) male members of the cast is disturbing to watch rather than amusing.
Despite these elements, Eleven One Theatre does create a serviceable and accurate biography of Émilie. However, it was probably not one suited to tonight's older audience. The slapstick and clownish antics of Simon Marie as Newton or Émilie's husband fell flat but would have certainly delighted a younger audience. Eleven One Theatre's website does not say whether it plans to tour schools but this would certainly be a good idea, not least for its presentations of the sciences as a rebellious and courageous career choice which could be pertinent information to bring to teenage minds...
We've just seen the European premiere of this stunning new play about the 18th Century French marquise, mathematics genius, lover of Voltaire... The best new play I've seen for years! Even Mark (my Oxford don Eng Lit boyfriend) stayed till the end and rates it. High praise... Fascinating absorbing and funny - A virtuoso performance from Emilie - Never off the stage - including the interval! In a lifetime of theatre-going this is a stand-out production. Every small and large part near perfect. With, let's not forget, stylised sumptuous costumes- Why isn't this on in the West End?
It's at Lady Margaret Hall theatre - I'd love everyone to see it' it's on till Sat. Don't miss it. (PS. I'd never even heard of this company before last night - this is unbiased!)