JOYCE MCMILLAN on MIRACLE at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 5.5.11
3 stars ***
EVER SINCE the huge success of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, there’s been a growing interest in plays about the thrill and symbolism of advanced physics. Nicola McCartney’s new lunchtime play, though, comes as a sharp warning that the business of combining scientific discourse with gripping drama is never easy; even when the human situation that underpins the story is as vivid and poignant as they come.
Set in Zurich, Berne and Como in the first years of the 20th century, Miracle tells the story of the youthful love-affair between Albert Einstein and his first wife Mileva Maric, who – by special permission – had been admitted as a fellow maths and science student at Zurich Polytechnic, despite being a woman. Maric was a brilliant student, and is thought to have helped Einstein with his calculations; but in an all-too-familiar story of female achievement nipped in the bud, she had to give up her studies when she became pregnant with Einstein’s first child, Lieserl, who was born out of wedlock, and probably given up for adoption.
McCartney’s 55-minute play moves backwards and forwards in time from the pivotal weekend in Como, in 1901, when Lieserl was conceived. We see the couple meet, a year earlier in Zurich; we see them on their subdued wedding-day in Berne in 1903, already overshadowed by disappointment and grief. At every step, though, their dialogue is weighed down by heavy exposition of scientific theory; and McCartney’s efforts to make Einstein’s ideas echo their emotional situation always seem laboured and unconvincing. Finn Den Hertog turns in a heroic performance as the inspired, charismatic and completely self-absorbed young Einstein. But a girlish Ailsa Courtney never looks comfortable with the role of a brilliant woman betrayed by biology; and doomed to a life in the shadow of a man who, in the end, did not even love her enough to make their marriage a success.