David Tennant is a fantastic actor, he really is. His performance in Doctor Who — which the series’ hardcore fanbase recently voted the best incarnation ever — doesn’t even hint at the half of him.
In Peter Moffat’s gripping and moving play Einstein and Eddington, Andy ‘Gollum’ Serkis had the showier role as the flamboyant physicist with the frizzy hair and bushy moustache.
But it was Tennant as Arthur Eddington, the buttoned-down Cambridge astronomer who ultimately proved Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, who provided the drama’s anchor. The man can suggest an ocean of emotions with the lift of an eyebrow.
Einstein and Eddington couldn’t have been more different, yet their lives paralleled one another and eventually interlocked. The German-Jewish Einstein, a serial philanderer and a naturalised Swiss, enraged the German scientific community — and the fat military industrialists who paid his fat university salary – by openly refusing to support the Great War.
Eddington, who held the Newtonian chair at Cambridge, was gay and a Quaker pacifist — hardly the ideal combination in the fervently nationalist England of 1914-18, especially when you’re in the habit of giving shelter, as Eddington and his sister did, to German families being driven out of their homes by thugs.
Both men believed that science should transcend narrow, nationalist and militaristic barriers; both were appalled when science and learning were used as tools of war to create the brutal chemical weapon that killed thousands of young men at Ypres alone.
Moffat’s drama kicked off in 1914, with Eddington’s academic bosses dispatching him to investigate Einstein’s radical theories. If Einstein is correct, it will prove that Isaac Newton’s teachings about the workings of the universe — the very foundation of scientific thinking and the British establishment’s claim to superiority — were completely wrong.
Eddington, who believes that “Newton
described everything perfectly but left room for God, too”, begins corresponding with Einstein and continues doing so, secretly, even after contact between German and British scientists are suspended in the face of mounting hostilities.
Eddington did prove Einstein right, but not until 1919, by taking photographs in Africa during a solar eclipse which showed that light bends. Though the two men met in Cambridge, their paths diverged. Einstein became a cultural icon while Eddington continued to work quietly, gradually slipping back into obscurity.
Peter Moffat’s outstanding drama disinterred his name and his reputation and illuminated a fascinating piece of science history that was unknown to me, at least. A wonderful drama.
Ironically, on a weekend when the current Doctor Who gave us a striking foretaste of what we can expect when he quits the Tardis next year, the BBC tried to work some Whovian revivalist magic on Survivors, the 1970s post-apocalyptic drama created by Terry Nation, the man who dreamt up the Daleks.
Survivors, despite the big budget and the biggish- name cast (Max Beesley, Paterson Joseph), already feels like old hat.
Einstein and Eddington * * * * *
Survivors * *