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The Theatreguide.London Review

New End Theatre      Spring 2005

Chemist-turned-playwright Carl Djerassi was one of the team who developed the birth control pill forty years ago, but he has also been writing all his life, and in retirement has turned to drama.

His latest play, a black comedy about academic infighting, is not a major advance in the art of drama, but a happily satisfying mix of broad humour and thought-provoking comment.

Djerassi's starting point is an actual event - a few years ago a Roman statue that was the pride of a Vienna museum and was even featured on Austrian stamps was proven through scientific means to be just a Renaissance copy.

The playwright is interested in the very real question of whether that matters - the statue is still just as beautiful as it was before - and the more wicked speculation about how the experts on both sides coped with the news.

After stressing in a programme note that his characters are all fictional and he intends no slander of their real-world counterparts, Djerassi then invites us to the real fun of watching how petty and vicious academics can be.

(Writing as a former academic myself, I can assure you that his satire is not based on extreme exaggeration.)

So his museum director, who has built her reputation on the statue in question, moves believably and comically from outrage (How dare you question me?) to denial (You're wrong) to rationalisation (What does it matter?) to paranoia (You're out to get me) to a desperate attempt to salvage something (Find the Roman original to display alongside it).

And the scientist whose chemical analysis proved the correct date descends from hearty collegiality (Hey, we're both in search of truth) to annoyance (Don't shoot the messenger) to contempt for a field of study that doesn't give primacy to facts, to anger (I'll show her) to real vindictiveness (...and embarrass her in the process)

As things degenerate and escalate, two relatively saner junior academics who are colleagues of the opponents get sucked into the escalating warfare until they're ready to go to wild extremes to demolish the foe.

And in some flashbacks to the Renaissance, the playwright offers a simple explanation - which is, of course, beyond the imaginations of the modern experts.

It's fun and occasionally raises interesting questions about how we define and value art. As satire it requires a degree of character simplification and, while I find it thoroughly believable that the combatants would go as far as they do, they leap into personal battle a bit too quickly (and also, with the end of the play looming, are reconciled in a rush).

Director Andy Jordan keeps things bouncing along, and the cast Karen Archer and Jack Klaff as art historian and chemist, Lucy Liemann and Hamish Clark as their proteges, Lynette Edwards and Chris Brazier as the Renaissance figures - are all first-rate.

Gerald Berkowitz

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