John Rawls's A THEORY OF JUSTICE: THE MUSICAL!

Wed 30th January – Sat 2nd February 2013

reviews

Robert Holtom

at 22:44 on 30th Jan 2013

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A theory is vaguely defined as a contemplative and rational type of abstract or generalising thinking, and given such vagueness, I would suggest that by the end of the musical John Rawls did indeed have a theory, albeit one that I struggle to apply to any real world situation. Nevertheless, whilst I may not be convinced of John Rawls’ theory of justice I am more than convinced that the musical version was utterly brilliant – the energy, ingenuity, and intelligence was there from the start, accompanied by a catchy score, some exceptional singing, and even some philosophical jokes.

Collectively and individually the cast were fantastic. Ollie Nicholls took the lead role as John Rawls and portrayed him as suitably abstract and philosophical. Rosalind Isaacs inspired him throughout as his student and muse Fairness. As a duo their voices complemented one another extremely well. Clare Joyce gave a particularly fantastic scene-stealing performance as the bodice wearing, whip wielding, and suitably selfish Ayn Rand. Unfortunately Clare’s microphone wasn’t working for her first hilarious song about selfish love, but we might not have known as her voiced carried well and we could still hear the punch lines. Meanwhile, the numerous other cast members took on a diverse range of roles from bored students to indignant feminists to a barbershop quartet – they flitted between roles smoothly and with perfect comic timing.

The simple set ensured we could focus our attention on the singers who were occasionally interrupted by erratic, school disco-like lighting signifying the time vortex that allowed Rawls to travel back in time to meet his favourite philosophers (yup, the plot was suitably bizarre). Special credit should go to the crewmember who tirelessly raised and lowered the huge curtain at the back of the stage – not an easy job. Brilliantly, this curtain came to act as Rawls’ (in)famous veil of ignorance, his particularly odd yet memorable means of ensuring justice for all members of society. As for the score, it was fast paced, foot-tapping, and played faultlessly by a live orchestra.

What was especially impressive about this production was that it was a piece of new writing. Adapting anything to stage is hard enough but when the subject matter is dense, esoteric, political philosophy then it’s all the more impressive that it proved mostly understandable and absolutely hilarious. Whilst some of the jokes did require an undergraduate degree in PPE the script and songs were rife with wit and rhyming philosophical concepts. And they even had a ‘real’ philosopher give a talk at the start; she spoke at length about forcibly removing blood, stealing eyes, and babies in puddles. Hers was a darker humour.

Not all the right notes were hit and there were a few technical glitches, but these didn’t really matter given the enthusiasm and talent of the whole cast and crew. I'm looking forward to the musical of Sartre's 'Being and Nothingness'.

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Gavin Elias

at 14:13 on 31st Jan 2013

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Never before has philosophy been as flat-out fun as it is in ‘A Theory of Justice: The Musical!’, Ramin Sabi and Eylon Aslan-Levy’s imaginative musical adaptation of political philosopher John Rawls’ tome of the same name. Framing Rawls as the unlikely hero, the play reinterprets the writing process of his opus as a zany and thoroughly tongue-in-cheek romp through time and the annals of philosophical thought – one that brings Rawls face to face with the great thinkers of yore, his political nemeses, and ultimately his grand idea. A truly bold production, ‘A Theory of Justice’ melds exuberant song and comedic gold with legitimate intellectual heft, resulting in a work that is at once eminently highbrow and infectiously funny.

Opening in 1970s Harvard, the play centers on Rawls’ (Ollie Nicholls) quixotic quest to revitalise political philosophy with an encompassing ‘theory of justice’. Inspired (and aroused) by a beautiful student (Rosalind Isaacs) with a penchant for eminent philosophers, he sets out to establish that ‘justice as fairness’, only to see his newly-found muse/love-interest sucked into a time vortex that bursts into being in the college quad. Cue a madcap voyage through philosophical history as Rawls encounters, questions, and debates intellectual giants such as Plato, Rousseau, and Kant on his search for both the student Fairness and the inspiration for his magnum opus. He’s not alone, however, as his ideological nemesis Robert Nozick (Luke Rollason) sets off in hot pursuit to sabotage his theory, egged on by his malevolent lover, Ayn Rand (Clare Joyce).

Embracing the whimsical silliness of its premise, ‘A Theory of Justice’ transforms each philosophical encounter into a flamboyant song-and-dance routine, each philosopher into a colourful musical caricature. In this way, Plato (Sam Ereira) becomes a ventriloquist wielding a Socrates dummy (Jacob Page), Hobbes (Andy Laithwaite) and Locke (Alexander Stutt) take to the stage as duelling gansta rappers obsessed with the ‘state of nature’, and Rousseau (James Skinner) appears as a smarmy cad who seduces Fairness with crooning promises of a society governed by the ‘general will’. Similarly, John Stuart Mill (Henry Zeffman) and his fellow Utilitarians form an overly enthusiastic barbershop quartet, Mary Wollstonecraft (Florence Brady) shows up to castigate Rawls for his implicit misogyny, and Immanuel Kant (David Wigley) makes a climactic appearance as a cross-dressing ‘deontological fairy godmother’ who prompts Rawls towards his final epiphany – the conceptualisation of his ‘veil of ignorance’. It’s light-hearted fun, to be sure, but nonetheless fun that retains much of the underlying seriousness at the core of various philosophical arguments on display. Indeed, this juxtaposition of eccentric – even goofy – presentation and solemn content is perhaps the show’s greatest strength, enabling it to present dense and often dull treatises in an exciting but largely faithful way. Perhaps most importantly though, it’s also supremely funny, deftly pressing complicated philosophical jargon and ideological positions into service as comedic fodder. Admittedly, a fair amount of this qualifies as recognition humour – laugh-grabbing winks that merely (sometimes lazily) acknowledge some element of a thinker’s theory in passing –, but this is balanced out with the piece’s many satirical flourishes, witty recontexutalisations, and simply well written verbal wordplay.

The execution of a play’s humour inevitably depends on the quality of the performers of course, and ‘A Theory of Justice’ is certainly not let down in this domain. Nicholls is consistently terrific as Rawls, imbuing the character (our philosophical audience surrogate) with a certain bumbling earnestness that counterpoints his intellectual agility and provides the show with a human anchor amidst all the silliness. Isaacs is similarly impressive as the feisty Fairness, and Rollason and Joyce delight in their respective villainous roles of Nozick and Rand, their dastardly libertarian schemes endowing the show both with many of its funniest moments and some much-needed narrative tension. The other members of the ensemble – many of them doing double or even triple duty – also proffer strong overall performances, with Wigley giving a particularly scene-steeling turn as the ‘fabulous’, wand-wielding Kant.

By and large, the singing is also a success. The cast – particularly the principles – boast generally pleasant voices, and despite occasional quiet patches and line-swallowing technical glitches, the play’s (often verbose) lyrics are audible and well handled. This is particularly critical given the outstanding quality of Aslan-Levy, Sabi and Peto’s original lines, witty and nimble constructions that brilliantly convey complicated theoretical arguments in a lucid and enduringly humourous way. The accompanying music is similarly superb, varying in tone and style for each number and lending a dynamic thrust and energy to the proceedings in the manner of the best show tunes.

Ultimately, this is a rare show that both entertains and educates, balancing the absurdity and hilarity of its trappings with the profundity of its underlying message – a potentially precarious act nonetheless firmly secured here by strong performances, artful lyrics and dialogue, and toe-tappingly marvellous music. Heady but never dull, ‘A Theory of Justice: The Musical!’ is a thoroughly amusing and delightful piece of musical theatre.

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Comments

Eylon Aslan-Levy; 31st Jan 2013; 15:13:13

How about "Being and Nothingness: On Ice"?

Thank you for a lovely review.

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