The Two Cultures

Thu 17th – Sat 19th November 2011


James Fennemore

at 23:48 on 17th Nov 2011



James, one of the two main characters in ‘The Two Cultures’, doesn’t like critics. I’ll do my best for him not to ‘pour out the clichés’ in ‘obtuse, simplistic bullshit’. The inspiration behind ‘The Two Cultures’ springs from C.P. Snow’s famous lecture of the same name, which exposes the cultural rift between science and art. James, a physicist, meets Rosie, an artist. It’s an intriguing premise. Yet despite some good acting from the leads, the production is hampered by its weak writing and often patronisingly unsubtle staging.

This is a shame, because the underlying concept is a good one. There was an excellent opportunity for mature, sophisticated discussion and analysis of the core reality of the differences between the two cultures writer and director David Kell is so keen to represent. Instead, however, we are frustratingly shown in the first half what is essentially the same conversation several times over. Art is beautiful, thinks Rosie. Science is beautiful, thinks James. Pop art philosophy (Is the Mona Lisa still art when nobody is looking at it?) meets pop science (Light: wave or particle?). The second half sees the narrative finally start to shift forward, before a preposterously emotionally overblown last scene, that in its tedious drawn out melodrama seems to stretch the very laws of time and space to which James unceasingly refers. I won’t give away the ending, not because I don’t want to spoil it for you, but because you’ve probably already guessed it.

The scene changes are almost farcical in their length, as stage-hands noisily move ungainly pieces of set onto the studio stage. But this is nothing in comparison to the clunky lack of subtlety of the staging itself. Throughout the second half, Kell relentlessly uses a technique of split-staging, whereby we see James and his physics colleagues on one side, and Rosie with her artsy friends on the other. The two parallel conversations run simultaneously, so that the dialogue occasionally mirrors one another. “Look!” screams the staging, “They’re different, BUT THE SAME!” In order to create this effect, however, the actors have to time their dialogue so that the overlaps occur at the right time, which makes for an ungainly, hesitant effect.

Thank goodness for the acting. Jo Allan and Maya Thomas-Davis are both extremely competent in their portrayal of the two main characters. Joe in particular acts with a very watchable realism, and is captivating in his tender normality, capitalising on an intimacy of style to which the studio space is well suited. Antti Laine and Katie Hsih also adeptly offer entertaining caricatured portrayals of James’ colleagues.

Despite glimmers of interest, then, ‘The Two Cultures’ is ultimately let down by the lack of subtlety or sophistication in its writing and staging. Artists and scientists will be united in their disappointment in this production.


Hyunwoo June Choo

at 03:10 on 18th Nov 2011



I confess: I did judge the book by its cover, but I walked into Pilch studio with hopes that the rather conspicuous theme would unfold to new dimensions or transpire to illuminating profundity. Alas, only time did tell that my apprehension was not unfounded, and David Kell’s The Two Cultures turned into a kitschy rendition of the warring Montegues and Capulets, dressed in façade of highbrow academe.

Whether this was the intention of the writer is unclear. This play is a tribute to C.P. Snow, who, in 1959, gave a lecture warning about the diverging trend between humanities and sciences and the unjustified inferiority in which one discipline views another. He scorns how “traditional culture” excludes science and instead, advocated that a harmony exist between two cultures. Kell illustrates Snow’s message through a love story, that of James (Jo Allan) and Rosie (Maya Thomas-Davis), a physicist and an artist. At first, each finds the other strange and humorous, but their attitudes gradually change the more they discover about the other world. Kell’s interpretation remains loyal to the Snow’s theme, even directly incorporating the delivery of Snow’s original speech (James Atkinson) into the play.

Though the topic seemed promising, the plot was wanting of pace and creativity. The opening was strong, with the two protagonists revealing the world they come from over a casual discussion of Rosie’s abstract art. James’s honest jargon-filled opinions are met with Rosie’s cheeky responses and their dynamic starts up at a nice speed. Unfortunately, their dynamic changes very little, if at all, during the first act, and the two exchange the same pattern of conversation. King James’s scientific touch turns everything—light, flowers, geometry—into physics, while Rosie, occasionally offering her artistic perspective, humors his reveries with the same eye rolls and cheeky responses. At one point, Rosie even admits, “Are we having this conversation again?”

Notwithstanding the winding dialogues, the cast molded to their characters extremely well. I was impressed by Thomas-Davis’s organic charm throughout some of the most excruciatingly awkward moments—likewise, I was also impressed by how effectively William (Antti Laine) and Olivia (Katie Hsih) could create such an excruciatingly awkward atmosphere. The set was appropriately simple and used in very clever ways.

Overall, I found the play to be a little anachronistic; clearly there still exists divisions within the arts and sciences, but as if Snow’s words were heeded in the past five decades, contemporary attitudes tend to respect both disciplines in its own merit. This trend is clear in modern times, as evidenced by the role of nuclear weapons in politics, illnesses in literature, and digital art. Often, Kell over-exaggerated the hostility between art and sciences, and from today’s perspective, this debate seems a bit obsolete. Had Snow’s theme been explored further into contemporary perspective or have extended the evolution of art-science balance out onto modern times, Kell’s piece may have been more insightful—but perhaps it is just a matter of personal preference.


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