Review by Laura Heuston
“There’s a real attempt to keep Einstein as the icon of humanitarianism and goodness, and he wasn’t good… He was an enormously talented creative genius and he was a dreadful father and a dreadful person and not kind to his children at all.”
- Michele Zackheim
The Great Man or The Good Man? Relativity by Mark St Germain argues this question through the lens of one of history's most admired figures, Albert Einstein, and the tenuous relationship he had with his family. Set in the 1930s during the physicist's time at Princeton, the genius is confronted by a figure from his past, demanding a justification for his treatment of his children. And his answer is a simple one- that his work was more important than his family.
This is of course a rather bitter pill for the audience to swallow. Hearing such a brutal analysis of relationships coming from one of the most beloved figures in pop culture is disconcerting. St Germain acknowledges just how overquoted he is throughout, and so many of these quotes seem to be based in acceptance and understanding. And yet here he stands, arguing that if an artist leaves his dying wife to create something beautiful, he has done the right thing. It is a hard line to walk, but in the hands of Nicholas Papademetriou, Einstein comes to life as still loveable while falling from the pedestal. Opposite him is Nisrine Amine as Margaret, the journalist who has done far more research than those who have interviewed him before. Standing in opposition to such a revered figure is a challenge, however it is in fact Margaret who acts as the moral grounding of the work, ensuring that the people (not just the work) are acknowledged.
The show in many ways adheres to some tired ideas of gender. The argument between the two leads is fundamentally over career and family- the man prioritizing his work, and the woman her child. The stakes, of course, are much higher when Einstein is involved; the man did change our conception of the universe. But deeper questions are at play here. What achievements can excuse what behavior? What, or who, gets dismissed for the sake of science? Is it ever worth it? Or, more alarmingly, is it always worth it?
These questions are too big to fully answer in 80 minutes, but it is clear that they are inextricably linked with gender- those left behind are overwhelmingly women. This is not to dismiss Einstein’s treatment of his sons (which is discussed at length), but it is his first wife Mileva who occupies much of their early dialogue. However, there is a third voice, that of Helen Dukas (played by Allison Chambers). An imposing figure, she offers us a woman of considerable power who has achieved it through adhering to Einstein’s patriarchal needs. She has all the access to the most brilliant man in the world, but only if she serves him. Helen acts as a foil to the modern, young mother and presents the audience with the image of a woman who seems to have found deep purpose under the thumb of a man. She is a disconcerting figure in the modern world, and in many ways a tragic one. Although I know she would not agree.
While the characters and concepts underlying the play are fascinating ones, there are a couple of detracting elements of the production. The emotional climax of the First Act felt mistimed, and what should have been a great reveal fell flat. This may have been due to some rather pointed clues in the script, however it was regrettable to see. The set is mostly lovely, however the use of soap/bubbles in the place of snow is not effective in the intimate space of Chippen St. That being said, the real strength of the piece is in the ideas before anything else- as Einstein would have wanted.
Relativity is a subversive take on a modern icon, and does so with generosity to both sides. Einstein has been lauded as a humanitarian so much that a more complex analysis is a breath of fresh air. And the question of the Great versus the Good is one that still compels us, necessarily so. We see a nuanced understanding of both sides here, and a genuine debate as to what constitutes the “greater good”. Which of course, is a question we all ask ourselves, and one which eludes an answer.