Most years, there's only one theatrical performance that interests me enough that I make the effort to book a ticket and get dressed up. Last year, it was Michael Frayn's "Democracy" (the cult of personality surrounding and inevitable downfall of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt). The year before, it was another of MF's intellectual slugfests - "Copenhagen" (the mysterious relationship between Margrethe and Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, and their role in the creation of the atomic bomb).
This year, there've been three must-be-seen-by-me pieces of live drama. The National Theatre Of Great Britain's production of JB Priestley's "An Inspector Calls" was an engaging thriller, visual treat (easily the most inventive set I've seen) and moving plea to take more responsibility for our fellow men. Alan Bennett's "The History Boys", again presented by the NTOGB, was worthwile for what it said about the getting and giving of knowledge - if, ironically, a little difficult to follow. Imagine an all-male "Grange Hill" crammed with literary quotations, conversations in French, torch songs and frank sexual discussion and you're some way there. Which brings us to "A Large Attendance In The Antechamber", a one-man show I saw yesterday at the Opera House's Playhouse.
Shuffling into the theatre with my friends CM, AM and their mum (that would be Mrs M), my eyes were immediately drawn to what looked like a vintage, coin-operated fortune teller machine. On second glance, it turned out to be a live man in Victorian-era garb. He was sitting inside a tiny room lined with books and other oddments. His body was motionless but his eyes moved mechanically around the theatre, homing in on any loud noises. When the lights died, the rest of him slowly came to life and he began channeling a ghostly voice...
The spirit inhabiting actor Brian Lipson was that of Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), a scientist who might be completely forgotten had he not (a) been the cousin of Sir Charles Darwin and (b) formulated the theory of eugenics, now forever associated with the Jewish Holocaust. But apart from the ingrained prejudices of his time, there was no sinister racial motivation behind Galton's belief in selective breeding. As I learnt over the next 75 manic minutes, it was simply one of countless theories generated by a man who could not stop measuring, recording and attempting to optimise ever aspect of his life - whether it be deducing the perfect recipe for tea or finding the region of England with the highest proportion of attractive women.
As Galton, Lipson lectured, constructed and activated Rube Goldberg devices, interacted with the audience, and gradually escaped from his costume and wooden cage. As an artist, he agonised over the act of seriously reconsidering a historical figure - in this case, a great man whose scientific reasoning should not be misunderstood - almost ashamed of the theatrical tricks and gags necessary to do so.
Sir Francis Galton had the highest IQ ever recorded. He explored and mapped parts of Africa, laid the groundwork in fingerprinting, was creating fake photos for others' amusement more than a century before Photoshop existed, and founded entire fields in the sciences of geography, psychology and statistics. He tried to understand every thing in the world and now it's up to us not to be ignorant of him.
"A Large Attendance In the Antechamber" was an amazing theatrical experience on par with the best one-man shows I've seen live, namely Simon Callow's "The Mystery Of Charles Dickens" and Marcel Marceau's mesmerising 2003 performance at the State Theatre.