The search for Einstein’s monster

Jan 13, 2014
John Hinton as Einstein. Photo: Hannah Houston

John Hinton as Einstein. Photo: Hannah Houston

Theatre can bring great theories alive, says writer-performer John Hinton in this article which explains his own brand of theatre-making and why he will be transforming himself into Albert Einstein for a show during the Adelaide Fringe.

I don’t know about Australia, but in the United Kingdom our education system is a bit of a dog’s dinner at the moment.  We have a man in charge of the Ministry of Education who believes that learning is all about the retention of facts, and that the best way to ensure the facts are being retained properly is through the regurgitation of said facts at regular exams from a young age.

This is particularly bizarre in a country where history seems to signpost very clearly that non-standard thinking and the challenging of facts are the surest ways to greatness.

The most famous names in Great Britain’s history are those who either challenged and overthrew the perceived wisdoms of their day – Newton and Darwin, for instance – or those with a great artistic flair – Chaucer and Shakespeare and countless others.  And yet, rather than seek to instill in the young mind an appreciation of the sheer mind-boggling wonder of the theory of evolution, our teachers are forced to drum into their charges’ minds the clinical difference between a “genotype” and a “phenotype”.

Rather than investigate the intricacies of Shakespeare’s plot-twists and psychologies in the theatrical form for which they are intended, the pressure of exams forces teachers to attack the plays as raw, cold text, where they seem ancient and irrelevant.

Against this backdrop, there is a growing movement within the UK theatre scene to wrest education back from the educators in government.

It is through telling the stories of the people behind the great theories that the theories can truly come to life

Live performance has the uncanny ability to impart knowledge through the back door. This has been understood for centuries – when the brand-new Soviet government needed to let the Russian people know what living in a communist state meant, it did not send lecturers to the far reaches of Siberia; it sent theatre companies.

Theatre is about telling stories, and it is through telling the stories of the people behind the great theories that the theories can truly come to life.  Theatre is also about immediacy, about performer and audience member standing eyeball-to-eyeball with a shared enjoyment of the subject matter, and another way of seeing a theory come to life is to live it – to be the Galapagos finch, to feel the impact of the falling apple of inspiration on your head.

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This February, I make my second visit to the Adelaide Fringe with my own brand of education-saving theatre.

In 2012, I was Charles Darwin, in a piece which clearly touched a pulse, since it sold extraordinarily well, and was honoured with two Fringe Award nominations.  This time, I am Albert Einstein.  The theory is somewhat harder to grasp, and the facial hair configuration is different, but the world is the same – the great man takes us on a journey through his life, explains his theories using a great deal of (gentle!) audience interaction, is faced with some serious moral dilemmas, and regularly breaks into song.

As a child, Einstein was not taught algebra as a cold, dry subject to be learnt by rote for regurgitation at exams.  He was taught algebra as an adventure story.  He was told that there’s a mystical, reclusive monster, who we call x, and as soon as we find x, it is forced to reveal its real name.

All of learning can be an adventure story.  And the adventure does not need to stop when we leave school.  My adventure continues daily as I research and write my musical comedies about science.  My greatest joy comes from sharing that adventure with others.

John Hinton’s show Albert Einstein: Relativitively Speaking will be at Holden Street Theatres during the Adelaide Fringe, from February 11-March 16.

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