November 21, 2011 2:40 pm

How the World Began, Arcola Theatre, London

Catherine Trieschmann’s play is in effect an evolutionist/creationist version of David Mamet’s Oleanna. Instead of a liberal arts professor accused by a female student of sexual assault, the central character is a high-school science teacher recently arrived from New York to a small town in Kansas that has been hit by a tornado. In class she makes offhand use of the term “gobbledegook”, only to find an intense, withdrawn student first querying it and then interpreting it as an insult to his and most of the town’s faith.

Trieschmann seems aware of her Mametian template throughout, even when she chooses to diverge from it. For instance, in order to show that this is a more complex issue than the excessive application of doctrines of political correctness, she does not restrict herself to two onstage characters. No, she uses three. The third is young Micah’s de facto guardian, who shares his creationist views and proves a more subtle interlocutor but is also finally more prepared to come to an accommodation.

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It doesn’t happen, of course: as in the Mamet, there is no compromise, although here, rather than capitulate, teacher Susan resigns. And, as in so many argument plays, the accuser makes up in quiet fervour what they lack in articulacy whilst the accused trips over the bulk of their own knowledge and torpedoes themselves with occasional indiscretions and uncontrolled outbursts.

It takes some doing to fit a full-ceilinged set into the Arcola’s smaller studio space. This canopy serves between scenes as an overhead screen on which is projected the creation of the cosmos, and during the action as the roof of the prefabricated classroom. Des Kennedy’s direction is as quiet as Perry Millward’s Micah: Kennedy seems at first to be favouring naturalism over pace, but is simply allowing a slow build between Millward, Anna Francolini’s New-Yorkily brisk Susan and Ciaran McIntyre’s laid-back, occasionally Mephistophelian and (oddly) just a tiny bit camp Gene.

Ultimately, though, one always knows where Trieschmann’s sympathies lie; she is too programmatic in her attempts to make it an equal struggle, and too ready to deploy personal cod-psychology to explain (to explain away?) Micah’s attitude at the end. The play’s position, as in the final Big Crunch projection, returns to a singularity as if the preceding 100 minutes had never taken place.

3 stars

www.arcolatheatre.com

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