‘Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight’ is an amusing, passionate, comedy packed documentary- drama, about Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, an 18th-century French physicist, philosopher and mathematician. She is recognised for her translation of Isaac Newton’s basic laws of physics; it is still considered the standard French translation today. She died in 1749 aged 42, due to complications during childbirth.
This 100-minute (with interval in which the lead remains on stage and continues with her calculations) play for adults, was written in 2010 by a young Atlantan resident Lauren Gunderson, who gained a Masters in Dramatic Writing from New York Uni in 2009 and has already become America’s most produced living playwright.
This superbly written and structured play is being staged by a relatively new ambitious and adventurous theatre company, Anatomical Heart Productions. The play can be seen in the Studio Theatre, Subiaco Arts Centre in Subiaco at 7.30 pm on Wednesday 11th, Thursday 12th and Friday 13th August. On Saturday 14th there is a matinée at 2.00 pm and an evening show at 7.30 pm.
The Scene: Present day and 1746 in France. Emilie’s study and sitting room.
Set Designer: by the Creative Team. The construction was by Peter ‘Pear’ Carr and Luke Miller. The rear wall of black drapes has a 40 cms high dais walkway across the width of the stage.
Properties: Rachel Vonk and Lesley Sutton. To the side of the stage is a blackboard with chalk (oh, those were the days) and a mahogany desk with old books, vellum, inkwell, and magnificent quill. On the other side of the stage was a left hand, chaise longue in studded velour.
Lighting designer and operator: Shelly Miller had a very limited lighting rig but with clever use of colour and a fine control of dimmers, she created some spectacularly evocative atmospheres. The candlelight effect was achieved using vintage style LED filament lamps.
Costume wardrobe team: Marjorie DeCaux, Shelly Miller and Merri Ford dressed Emilie in a very smart burial shroud – after all, she was dead and returning. In her youth, Soubrette Emilie and the other ladies are dressed in sumptuous silk bustles.
Sound designer and composer: John Congear has created something quite new. When Emilie was having a flashback, there was the sound of an electric arc crackling and sparking, combined with the hum of static electricity and Shelly’s lights – Ingenious.
Stage Manager: Rachel Vonk had a fast-moving show with numerous entrances and exits.
Standing centre stage with only a spotlight for illumination, Emilie du Châtelet (Kate O’Sullivan), an 18th century French scientist has returned to life and radiates exuberance. Two hundred and seventy years after her death, she is determined to analyse her final years of life. Should she have concentrated more on her family and love life? Or purely on her scientific skills and research? What really mattered?
After an animated and lucid description of her scientific studies, Emilie continues to tell us about her boring husband, The Marquis (Nate Teune) and how she has now met a man, Arouet. He is known as a troublemaker to the police, but better known to us as Voltaire (Alan Gill). He is a skilled poet but a failure at writing books and opera. She finds him vain but intelligent; although disinterested in her science, he makes up with his highly passionate nature. Egotistical Voltaire ‘V’ and Emilie have battles of intellect. When things get too passionate, Emilie – Emilie as a young woman (Joanna Tyler) her Soubrette (a flirtatious performer) would take over to express her deepest feelings.
Emilie’s quiet daughter (Kyra Belford-Thomas) is still strictly supervised by her mother. Then there is hormone-laden Mary Louise (also Kyra Belford-Thomas) Voltaire’s flighty niece. Emilie’s own mother (Hetty Lobegeiger) is caring but with a stiff upper lip like most refined people of the day.
Passionate love affairs come and go for the Marquise, but who does she really love? Will she complete her research before her limited time on earth ends? – like so many women of the day, tragically.
This sounds a dull, dry topic for a play, however the attentive Director, Michelle Ezzy, has performed an excellent job, keeping the pace cracking along. The enunciation and intricate body language for every one of the six actors was immaculate. Kate O’Sullivan as the female lead was amazing; she has had minor parts in the past but this complex, elaborate performance with her having 50% of the dialogue, left me breathless. Incidentally, Kate – like the central character – is science graduate. Memorable performance.
Dialogue there are some beautiful, politically incorrect lines of dialogue – especially from Voltaire – which even in those days, Emilie would not let pass. The depiction of Voltaire by Alan Gill ranged from arrogance to plain creepy and slimy as her tried desperately to make love to Emilie. Wonderful.
The short writeup around the programme’s edge makes interesting reading. It is the little things like this border and forceful attention to detail that have filtered through to the direction and taken the whole production to another admirable level. This play is Pure Quality.