Plays

Chasing Waves by Cally Philips

Review by Bill Kirton

This book consists of two relatively short plays, Chasing Waves and Benito Boccanegra’s Big Break and the author’s notes on each. In those notes, she suggests that the latter investigates areas that she refined and developed in the former, so it seems logical to approach them from that perspective. They both belong very clearly to the Theatre of the Absurd, a movement that people tend to date back to the middle of the last century (or even earlier) but which persists today.

Benito Boccanegra’s Big Break (which, from now on I’ll call 4B) is ambitious. The action switches between the present, Italy in the 1920s, Italy and Paris in the mid-late 19th century, and 14th century Genoa, but these disparate periods are tightly linked through the characters. Joe Green (a name which, except for one vowel, translates into Italian as Giuseppe Verdi) is a student researching the operas of the real Verdi, who wrote an opera about Simone Boccanegra, Il Doge de Genova. And the fourth main character is the fictional  Benito Boccanegra of the title, a circus ringmaster who’s beaten to his goal of establishing fascism in Italy by another Benito – Il Duce.

In the words of the author, these characters in their separate time periods and their separate ways, explore ‘the relationships between fiction and reality, tragedy, history and heroism, audience and character’. Each of them is seeking to understand something about himself, to explain some aspect of his dilemma. It’s entertaining but challenging. The scenes and the action move quickly and the overall dramatic pace never drops. It’s an experimental play but one which is built on firm stage conventions.

I enjoyed reading it but, having read Chasing Waves first, I felt that the complexities of the personalities and their different involvements in 4B were so absorbing in themselves that they partly obscured the play's underlying ‘message’. On the other hand, they brought together eras and associations which extended its scope.

Chasing Waves has only two characters, but they’re called Wittgenstein and Schrodinger, so we know what to expect right from the start. Except that, while it’s a play about thought, knowledge, understanding and meaning (in short, philosophy), it’s also funny, thought-provoking, involving and entertaining. It has clear echoes of Waiting for Godot, both in the repetitious and questioning nature of some of the exchanges and in their frequent, direct acknowledgements of the presence of an audience. It also references the Stoppard of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Their only props are a black or white board, 2 photographs of the ‘real’ Wittgenstein and Schrodinger, and a box – the famous box, of course, which contained (or didn’t contain) a cat, which was alive or dead or both. But the theatrical dynamic is in the single debate they pursue through the play, the scientist stressing the importance of knowledge, the philosopher insisting that the goal is understanding. This is making it sound dry and academic – it isn’t. Ideas, especially about the fundamentals of how we perceive things and the consequent nature of the ‘reality’ we construct from those perceptions and observations are stimulating and even fun. The two actors who call themselves Wittgenstein and Schrodinger share the slow desperation of Vladimir and Estragon and sometimes become frustrated at the apparent lack of progress or the occasional stalemate. They discuss levels of ‘truth’, the need to make choices and the ‘evidence’ we need to make such choices.

And the members of the audience are also participants in the debate. They watch the action expecting to ‘learn’ something, to ‘know’ something as a result, but Wittgenstein rejects knowledge as unreliable and, instead, seeks understanding. Knowing what someone means isn’t the same as understanding them. ‘Mind invests meaning in language’ says Wittgenstein and, of course, the unreliability of language is one of the basic themes always exploited by Absurdist drama.

The central philosophical question is ‘What’s in the box?’ But it’s also used as a running gag and an excuse for some good and bad miming from the actors and some strictly theatrical effects. They talk of starts and endings, insist on the importance of ‘now’ and recognise that all we ever have is the moment.

The author, in her notes, suggests that the audience must have ‘open, enquiring minds’. Well, yes, that’s true. But that doesn’t mean a po-faced notion of the elevated nature of philosophical discourse. There are light touches of wit and humour that make this much more than a ‘thought-play’. On top of that, the author’s ‘Extras’, i.e. notes on the production and for the enlightenment of her actors, offer the clearest exposition of quantum theory I’ve ever read (and as I write that, it’s important to know that, as a non-scientist, I’ve read countless books which claim to ‘popularise’ science and which have left me as ignorant as when I began).

Altogether, this was an entertaining but also an instructive read. I not only ‘know’ what physicists ‘mean’ when they talk of such things, for the moment at least, I ‘understand’ them.