It’s not often you get handed a pair of ear defenders when walking into a rehearsal room; they are ordinarily ‘safe’ spaces with an air of creative calm, cultivated in order to provide the best working environment for cast and team alike. At the Science Museum, however, actors rehearsing for The Energy Show have to remain equipped throughout. Goggles? Check. Gloves? Check. Very loud bangs? Check.
These bangs, I am told, have often caused alarm in the exhibition space itself, which comes as no surprise. Setting fire to a balloon filled with combination of oxygen and hydrogen creates the kind of boom that would wake you up in the middle of the night, fearing some not-so-distant gasworks had exploded. There is, probably, some important scientific reason we get to hear and watch this succession of loud bangs, but I’m too busy giggling like a schoolchild to notice.
Sam Mason, who has co-written the show alongside his day job as Commercial Director of the Science Museum, tells me this is kind of the point: “We have an end purpose in that we’d like people to get excited about science, because that’s part of the mission of why the Science Museum exists, but I don’t mind if they get excited about theatre; I don’t mind if they just have an hour-and-a-quarter of a really good time, and we’ve made them laugh and think a bit.” Crucially, this is a show which will appeal to all ages and interests: “I think if you were a 70-year-old, retired science teacher you’d have a really good time, I think if you were a 15-year-old rugby player, you’d have a really good time.” Considering my glee at watching balloons go up in flames, it’s hard not to agree.
The reference to ‘theatre’ is, Mason tells me, crucial to the success of The Energy Show, which opened last year to rave reviews (“the first show I’ve done that had universally positive reviews!”) and returns again this month before a nationwide tour. He and his team found that, though there were plenty of science lectures and demonstrations on offer, few managed to give their audiences a truly ‘theatrical’ experiences. This show, co-written with Director Martin Lamb, attempts to cross that boundary, and tries “to find a different way to engage audiences with science”. It’s not a subject, he says, “that theatre companies automatically look to – there’s a million shows on love and emotions and education – but there aren’t that many that just look at science. But it’s extraordinarily exciting and fascinating.”
The show, set in a non-specific steampunk-y world (“it could be Victorian or it could be a thousand years from now”), follows the journey of two young scientists whose professor has given them the task of presenting and demonstrating all nine forms of energy using only materials they find in the lab. “One is a very methodical scientist,” Mason tells me, whilst “the other just wants to blow stuff up,” thus effortlessly creating the tension between two modes of carrying out the scientific process and adding drama to boot. Along the way, they are joined by their digital helper, ‘iNestein’, whose presence allows the show to give scientifically accurate explanations without ever hindering the action, and a trusty humanoid robot, Bernard.
With the rise of popular science in recent years, it’s unsurprising that this show has come along now, and Mason is completely unapologetic about it being zeitgeisty, citing Brian Cox, Dara O’Briain and The Big Bang Theory as instigators of this trend: “They don’t care about being fashionable or trendy – what they care about is the science and the world, and how that works. And what’s interesting is that it’s making that a valid option to be cool, so you don’t have to like One Direction or even know who the hell they are.”
In order to see how much science has captured the collective imagination in recent years, you need only look towards the discovery of the Higgs Boson, the continued excitement about CERN’s Large Hadron Collider and the superstardom of Commander Chris Hadfield. On the eve of my chat with Mason, Stephen Hawking made worldwide news as he won a bet about early waves, and Mason suggests that science is not viewed with the scepticism it once was: “they are just experimenting, they’ve got no aims, they’re just playing. So you have thousands of the best minds in the world in one place just playing.”
This constant questioning, lack of definable purpose and desire to ‘play’ is, I suggest, arguably the same of the best theatre, making the decision to stage science an intelligent one. “Theatre can grasp vast concepts and always has,” Mason continues, “Back from Greek theatre, they were always dealing with massive ideas and massive concepts from gods to war. And if you can recreate a war on stage, you can recreate the science stuff.”
Ultimately, Mason wants to use Science Museum Live to help pull down the divide between art and science: “I’ve worked in arts all my life, and you always have people saying ‘I’m not an arts person’, even though they have a huge music collection, have art on the wall, watch films and drama and wear designer clothes. You engage with arts from second you wake up to when you go to bed. Equally, I don’t think you have to say ‘I’m into science’; that doesn’t mean you’re not interested in how things are made, and what is out there in the universe.”
After The Energy Show, “What is out there in the universe” is what Science Museum Live hopes to tackle next, coinciding with a giant Cosmonauts exhibition in the museum itself. This would, of course, necessitate utilising the full size of the IMAX space in order to get a sense of the “breathtaking scale” of space. The museum is no stranger to complex ideas, having collaborated with Complicite and Sound&Fury on shows about maths and blindness, so space seems the next logical step. And after that? “We’re hoping to do a massive thing on robots, with actual robots. I’d love to have robots on stage.”
They say don’t work with children or animals. Perhaps, thanks to Science Museum Live, we’ll be adding robots to that list in the not-too-distant future.
The Energy Show is at the Science Museum from 3-11 April, and then touring. For more information, visit Science Museum Live’s website.