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Interview with John Hinton, Tangram Theatre company

May 5, 2016


Musical comedy meets theoretical physics when the Tangram Theatre bring their award-winning ‘Albert Einstein: Relativitively Speaking’ show to the Great Hall in Alleyn’s School on Saturday 7th May.

John Hinton, one of the founders of the Tangram Theatre Company, and performer in the show, chatted to us about what we can look forward to from their engaging and interactive performance.

What can festival-goers expect from your performance of ‘Albert Einstein: Relativitively Speaking’?

They can expect a good few belly-laughs, a solid grounding in both Theories of Relativity, a cracking tune or two stuck in their heads for days, and more than their fair share of crazy-hair-and-moustache type action.

The performance is part of Tangram Theatre’s Scientrilogy – what was it that inspired you to stage this trio of scientific stories?

I guess it started with my absolute obsession with Charles Darwin and his book The Origin of Species on the one hand, and my absolute obsession with theatre, music and storytelling on the other, and I just had to squidge those hands together and see what beast emerged. The beast that emerged was an hour-long musical comedy solo show with a ridiculously long title (32 words to be precise). I performed that solidly for a few years, took it to six different countries, and loved every second of it.

Eventually I brought my hands apart again, and thought, “Right, what shall we squidge next?” I kept the theatre/music/storytelling hand as it was, replaced the evolving with the relative, and said hello to the Pope of Physics, the Alchemist of Algebra, the Superman of Spacetime, the one, the only… Albert.

And I squidged them together for a few years, absolutely loved it again of course, then I re-yanked the squidge asunder and completed the trilogy in the only fit manner. As Marie Curie. But that’s another story.

This Spring tour, very excitingly, has seen me switch between these three roles with rather alarming regularity, and I just happen to be landing in Dulwich as the midhirsuitiest* of the three.

(* This word means “The one with the middle amount of facial hair – not none, and not shedloads”.)

You have performed to thousands of people all over the world, in many different venues. To what degree does the personality of the audience, and the way they interact with the story, impact upon or change the nature of the performance?

It is different every time. Theatre always is. Some theatre may attempt to erect a so-called fourth wall at the front of the stage, but we know that’s tosh, we know the performer and audient are locked in an inextricable dance of action reaction, we know the personalities on both sides will meld the responses of the other. The theatre I like to see, and make, is the theatre that embraces this crossfootlightsial* symbiosis, and runs with it all the way to the hills.

There’s a script, of course, and I am a stickler for sticking to the script. It’s just that the script has lots of…grey areas. They tax my grey cells, but they’re greyt. They’re the bits that the audience, whether they’re being handed a vacuum cleaner, asked a direct question, taught some rap moves, or just encouraged to think about something for a bit, can and will mould into their own unique performance, in which they are as much a player as I.

(* This word means “between audience and stage” – there’s probably a better word I can’t think of (and the word after it means “when two things benefit from each other”))

You explain that as a theatre company you want to talk about the world we live in and that as idealists you believe that theatre can make the world a better place. Could you explain a bit about how theatre can make the world a better place?

Well, I’m not quite sure what idealism is, but yeah, theatre both does intrinsically, and can proactively, improve the world. In small ways, of course, and to relativ(itiv)ely small numbers of people at a time. Usually just by making them think in a different way about stuff (indeed, as Einstein said, “The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think”). With this piece, for example, we open up – as Einstein did – the bizarre spectre of space and time as rubbery, bendable substances, not the strict, solid, reliable constants Newton presumed, and which we live our lives by. What does it mean to live in a Universe in which time itself travels slower aboard a spaceship, and energy and mass are two faces of exactly the same coin? And improving our understanding and questioning of the world, by only a small leap of logic, improves the world.

We also open up – as Einstein also did – some really tough ethical dilemmas, about whether science used for bad ends can still be good science, and about who’s responsible when lots and lots of people die. And dusting off our moral compasses every now and then, by an even smaller leap of logic, improves the world.

Taking inspiration from the founder of modern-day Dulwich, Edward Alleyn, a theme of the Dulwich Festival this year is considering how each of us can make a difference and a positive contribution to our societies. As you discuss above, you are seeking to make the world a better place through theatre – what advice would you offer anyone wanting to make a similar contribution in their own walk of life?

Relativity, as I say in my play, is all about seeing things from the other fellow’s point of view. And that’s what society is about too, I guess. Everyone has a positive contribution to make, and by listening to each other, and working together, and seeing the world through fresh eyes every now and then, what can we not achieve? I’m not the master of soundbites myself, but I know a man who is: in 1932, Einstein was interviewed by a magazine in New York called Youth, and his answer to one question (the question itself is lost to history) was “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile.”
Tickets for the Tangram Theatre’s production of ‘Albert Einstein: Relativitively Speaking’ can be found here: