Jared and Noah Liebmiller’s Atlas was a breath of fresh air for student written drama. Set in 1684, Atlas explores the consequences of a wager on gravitational theory between three friends, Edmund Halley (Oliver Gilford), Christopher Wren (Jonathan Hewitt) and Robert Hooke (Emily Hoyle). Halley’s inclusion of the dishonoured Isaac Newton (Miles Hurley) only serves to raise the stakes, turning the wager into one of the greatest feuds and subsequent discoveries in scientific history. Although the scientific theory may have been difficult to follow (despite being simplified), Atlas successfully brought to life a potentially alienating topic.
The nature of the script demanded strong performances from the four main actors, and they did not disappoint. Although not flawless, each actor delivered a nuanced and dynamic performance suited to the show’s period and subject matter. Hoyle’s portrayal of Robert Hooke, although shaky at first, felt the most natural as she settled; her ability to maintain an underlying tension in her performance, even when jovial, made Hooke the most intriguing character of the show. Likewise, it was clear that Hurley had established a true understanding of Newton, his clever characterisation, with subtle and refined mannerisms suggesting Newton’s autism, brought depth to a character who may have been one note. This said, Hurley struggled at times with his accent and diction, an issue shared with most of the play’s actors, occasionally speaking so fast that lines either lost meaning or were lost completely.
Gilford was the only actor to avoid this; his delivery was clear and his voice appealing. As both narrator and member of the drama, Halley underpins much of Atlas, and Gilford was able to naturally wax out the scripts witticisms, creating some of the most emotionally powerful moments of the show. The fourth member of the friendship, Christopher Wren (Jonathan Hewitt), was the least developed and suffered as a result. As the man caught in between the feud, he at times seemed too trivial in comparison to the other three. Nevertheless, Hewitt was excellent in his contrasts between jokey lad and suffering friend, even when unsure over lines, and was the only actor to fully judge comedic timings.
The show’s impressive attention to detail was difficult to miss. From the star map drawn on the floor, depicting the night sky on July 5th 1687 – the day Newton published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica – to the equations laid out on chalkboards leaning against the back wall – the level of thought put into the show’s design set Atlas apart from the beginning. Grace Cowie and Alice McDougall’s tech and set has to be commended as a highlight of the show; although clearly intricate, it’s perceived simplicity complimented and enhanced the story that was unfolding. This said, my biggest gripe with the overall production was the way in which scene changes were staged. While it was clear there was potential in these sequences, they felt incongruous to show as a whole, often coming across as awkward and confused.
For the Liebmillers’ first student writing and direction attempt, Atlas was impressive. Although the script could have benefitted from further revision, the wittiness and eloquence meant that at times I forgot that it was student written, let alone a first attempt. Despite its flaws, Atlas was visually charming, emotionally powerful and beautifully written.