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Review: The Poet’s Guide to Science at the Sly Fox

By Naomi Hamer

Cy has lost his faith in science so he visits his GP Dr Ben Paterson, hoping for a cure is the premise behind The Poet’s Guide to Science. Finding more questions than answers, Dr Paterson refers him to a specialist and for an MRI scan. “Turn left, left and left again” and Cy opens the door to Dr Ben Paterson this time, Poet Laureate (Aspiring). Cy is prescribed poetry, lines from Edgar Allen Poe and Shakespeare and before too long both Dr Ben and Cy find themselves in a pub and running into three real life scientists including Dr Miguel Hernandez-Prieto; Professor Matthew England and Associate Professor Nicholas Wood.

Staged at the Sly Fox, centrestage we see a desk with paperwork and a label that says Dr Ben Paterson MD on one side and Dr Ben Paterson, Poet Laureate (Aspiring) on the other. A piano to the right of the desk and a blackboard to the left with the breakdown of NS / TVW and a count below each. Whilst there are mentions of the magazines New Scientist and TV Week scattered throughout the play, it doesn’t become clear that the blackboard is tallying how many patients read each magazine until Dr Ben Paterson mentions this mid way through the second act even though both characters add to the board throughout. Sitting almost centrestage, the blackboard would feel more relevant if revealed earlier in the play. Costumes are subtle yet stereotypical with Dr Ben Paterson wearing a red beret, a white puffy sleeved shirt and a book in hand as an aspiring poet laureate and a white lab coat as the GP. Cy wears a sweater vest and button up shirt and the scientists are in their everyday clothes.

The strength of The Poet’s Guide to Science is in the scientists who make appearances under the guise of bartenders and other incidental roles including Dr Miguel Hernandez-Prieto, Professor Matthew England and Associate Professor Nicholas Wood. Particularly in the discussions of their research and their willingness to answer audience questions openly in a question and answer session towards the end of the play. Dr Miguel Hernandez-Prieto spoke about GMO or genetically modified organisms, his research focusing on photosynthesis at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis. Professor Matthew England spoke about his research as a climate scientist and oceanographer, his current role as a Scientia Professor of Climate Dynamics at the University of New South Wales. And Professor Nicholas Wood from The University of Sydney talked about the importance of immunology and vaccines. Each scientist spoke eloquently and shed light on areas of science that are considered controversial in easy to understand language.

For a play that asks real scientists to make cameos and talk about their research, Dr Phil Dooley and Patrick Davies Trumper carry the show throughout both acts. However engaging they may be together, their acting styles feel over the top when compared with the scientists they meet on stage who are more conversational. While I appreciate that the scientists are not trained actors, the introduction of microphones and stools for each of them felt clunky as the actors remembered to bring them over to the scientists and in a venue like the Sly Fox didn’t feel necessary. There is also a distinct lack of diverse voices on stage with both actors and all three scientists on the night this reviewer saw the show all middle aged men. The only female voice being Director and Writer Michele Conyngham introducing the show at the beginning.

In an era of alternative facts, The Poet’s Guide to Science starts some thought provoking discussions surrounding what it means to lose and find your faith in science as well as information overload and not knowing who to trust. Never have questions about the difference between uncertainty and doubt felt so relevant in regards to the western world’s perceived faith in science. Although the performance makes otherwise contentious scientific discussions palatable, the plot feels tangential to the real purpose which is to give a platform to working scientists to discuss their research in a public format.

The Poet’s Guide to Science was at The Sly Fox, Enmore as part of Sydney Fringe on Saturday 7 September 2019.

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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