ED2013 Interviews ED2013 Theatre ED2013 Week3 Edition

John Hinton: More than just a theory – Einstein in Edinburgh

By | Published on Tuesday 20 August 2013

John Hinton

Edinburgh’s Science Festival may be in April, but a little bit of scientific fun can usually found in the city’s August festival month too. And this year one such show that stood out is ‘Albert Einstein: Relativitively Speaking’, a song and dance of a theatrical lecture written and performed by John Hinton that shares the life, work, and dilemmas of the world’s most famous physicist. We spoke to John to find out more.

CC: The show sounds part theatre, part comedy, part cabaret. How does it work?
JH: The central conceit is that the audience are at Einstein’s inaugural lecture at Princeton University in 1933. Albert, however, is not particularly good at sticking to his lecture notes, and gets distracted recounting whimsical anecdotes, using outlandish analogies to explain special and general relativity and breaking into rap.

CC: Will the uninitiated be an Einstein expert at the end of the show?
JH: That is certainly our aim! The nitty-gritty science behind relativity is extremely hard to get your head around at the best of times – it was famously claimed that there were only three people who understood it when it was originally published, and that no-one really knew who the third person was! – so our only hope regarding the science is to give a first-level basic introduction. What does stay with people, however, are the extraordinary and little-known facts from Einstein’s life – that he invented a fridge and married his cousin, and the story of what became of his brain.

CC: How close is the script, and the events it describes, to the real story of Einstein’s life?
JH: Our show has been rigorously fact-checked by a team of three physics lecturers at Sussex University and one best-selling Einstein biographer, John Gribbin. So while we put words into Albert’s mouth that he’d never have actually said in a million years, not a word of it is a lie.

CC: What made you want to make a show around the life and work of Einstein?
JH: He is everyone’s hero.  He’s my hero because his science is so far out and changes so fundamentally the way we understand our universe. He is my director Daniel Goldman’s hero as the coolest Jew of the 20th Century. He is a universal hero as the epitome of a crazy genius. Also, his story allows for some serious ruminations into weapons of mass destruction, a subject I strongly want to talk about.

CC: Did you know a lot about the man before writing the show, or did you have to do a lot of research?
JH: I have always read far more non-fiction than fiction, and have absorbed a fair bit over the course of my thirty-something years. What I then do, when tackling a subject like Einstein, is I read loads of books in a very short space of time – approximately three biographies and a greater number of theory books – then I put the literature aside and just splurge on to the page. The parts of the books that stuck out for me make it into the play, without me really knowing which book they came from.

CC: You previewed the show at the Brighton Fringe. Is Brighton’s Fringe festival a good place to try out new Edinburgh shows? Has the show developed since May?
JH: I absolutely love Brighton Fringe, partly because I live in Brighton and I adore seeing my city invaded by quality theatre. The show has changed a huge amount in the intervening few months, the most significant change being the cutting of one whole experiment and one entire song (which may well make it onto the show’s CD soundtrack once we get round to recording one).

CC: You previously wrote and performed a play about Darwin. What draws you to the superstars of science?
JH: It’s kind of a challenge to myself, I guess. If I can get my head round a really complex theory, and distill it through comedy and song to become understandable to a theatre audience, then I can pat myself on the back.

CC: For people who saw the Darwin show, how does the Einstein one compared?
JH: The main difference is that I’m not alone onstage this time. I’m joined by the wonderful Jo Eagle, who plays Einstein’s two wives and mother, and accompanies me on piano for the songs. And without wanting to give too much away about the ending, the current show does go to a far darker place than the Darwin show did.

CC: Are there any other big names from the history of science who you would like to make theatre about?
JH: A few people have said I should be Marie Curie next, to complete the triad of biology, physics, chemistry. Though, while I’m not averse to donning a dress for the sake of science, the joke may wear thin for an hour-long show. There are also some extremely interesting characters in the history of electricity that have… sparked my interest.

CC: What plans have you got next for ‘Albert Einstein Relativitively Speaking’?
JH: The show will be touring the UK for the rest of the year, taking in Haywards Heath, Weymouth, Manchester, Oxford, with rural tours of Kent, Shropshire, Wales and Cumbria. I’m crossing my fingers for a revisit to Adelaide Fringe next Spring, and then hopefully I’ll be forced to keep this moustache and unkempt hair for a good while thereafter. And obviously, if any readers want to have Albert come to their local theatre, village hall, lecture theatre, give Jolie our producer a shout!

‘Albert Einstein: Relativitively Speaking’ was performed at Pleasance Courtyard at Edinburgh Festival 2013.