Play: Vere (Faith)
Written by John Doyle and directed by Sarah Goodes
State Theatre of South Australia, 12 October – 2 November
Sydney Theatre Company, 6 November – 7 December
When playwright John Doyle was 11 he was given a telescope and a microscope. Although he was oriented more to the arts than science, he says, the instruments fed his fascination with changing the focus of how we look at things. With Vere (Faith), Doyle has written a play rich in the themes of science and enquiry.
This is a story about a brilliant mind in crisis and he has placed his central character in a place of considerable personal darkness.
The action opens with Vere’s discovery that he has dementia. As well as threatening his career as a professor of physics, the diagnosis interrupts his travel plans to visit Switzerland as an observer of the March 2013 experiment at the Large Hadron Collider, to verify the existence of the Higgs boson.
Alongside forays into maths, physics, evolutionary theory and archaeology, the play is about ideas of mortality and belief, says Doyle.
“My audience is whoever is interested in what it means to be human and how we reconcile ourselves with life and what we’re meant to take out of life, if these are the only cards that we’ve been dealt,” he says.
Vere is a lifelong atheist yet his grandson has decided on a career in the church and, says Doyle, some of the comedy of the play (and despite its serious subject matter, there’s plenty of dry wit and gallows humour) comes from this clash of views. “It’s amusing seeing the concept of faith being taken seriously among cynics,” he explains.
Doyle is better known as his satirical alter ego Rampaging Roy Slavin, half of the comedy duo Roy and H.G. (Greg Pickhaver). Along with 30 years of spoofing sports commentary on radio and TV, he has written two drama series – Changi and Marking Time – and a play, The Pig Iron People, which was produced by the Sydney Theatre Company in 2008. He came up with the idea for his latest play while filming an episode of Two on the Great Divide with Tim Flannery.
They were visiting Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains and discovered the house of the renowned Australian archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe. He made his reputation in Europe between the 1920s and 40s as a prehistory expert, but his Marxist views made him unwelcome in his native land. Nevertheless he returned in the 1950s and, fearing he had cancer, committed suicided by leaping 300 metres from the Bridal Veil Falls in the Grose Valley. It was the same spot where, 120 years earlier, Charles Darwin had had a revelation about the age of the Earth, realising it was much older than he had believed.
Out of this rich soup of ideas came Vere (Faith). Doyle, Like V. Gordon Childe, laments the lack of intellectual enquiry in the public discourse, and says that there has been a retreat from popular engagement with science, even though people remain fascinated in the subject.
The lack of science on the radio is one of his bugbears and he believes the dominant world of talk-back radio would be much better off if, instead of from gossip magazines and daily newspapers, producers gleaned their discussion topics from science publications.
“If I were put in charge of a radio station, which is unlikely,” he says, “we’d all be subscribing to Cosmos and getting our ideas from there.”