“People like us, who believe in physics,” Albert Einstein wrote in a letter of condolence on the death of a friend, “know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” The scientist’s credo is cited as an epigraph to Neil Flynn’s wildly ambitious drama Gravity (A Love Story), which takes its cue from Einstein’s theory of relativity, spinning out the shift in scientific and philosophical perceptions that followed over 400 years, from Newton’s first inklings about the laws of nature to the contemporary moment.
The play touches on the lives of great thinkers and ordinary citizens along the way, each of whom, in their quest for happiness, greatness or human progress, are preoccupied by two central questions: What connects us to the past? Of what consequence are our present-moment decisions for the future?
Appearing against the blank backdrop of the Belltable Theatre’s rehearsal space in Limerick, Flynn joins me on Zoom after a long and intense day watching the cast and crew wrestle with his big ideas, as they “try to join the dots, marry the themes with the structure. There is a lot to be excited about, but there are also certain challenges when it comes to putting [the play] on its feet.”
I wasn't sure how it would be received, with its split scenes and its 400-year timescale. But people were laughing quite a lot, and that was reassuring
Flynn is grateful to have the support of an experienced crew: director Conall Morrisson, designer John Comiskey and composer Conor Linehan. He is grateful too to Limerick’s Bottom Dog Theatre for taking “a cosmic leap” by staging the show, which was originally scheduled for production in 2020. The partnership came about after a chance meeting at Siamsa Tíre in Kerry in 2018, when Flynn was introduced to the actor Liam O’Brien, artistic director of Bottom Dog. O’Brien encouraged him to send a draft of Gravity (A Love Story) to the company as part of a play-reading initiative that the company was running.
“The play wasn’t fully formed at that stage,” Flynn remembers, “and I wasn’t sure how it would be received, with its split scenes and its 400-year timescale. But people were laughing quite a lot, and that was reassuring: that I was not the only one to see the target.”
Bottom Dog were so encouraged by the reception of that staged reading that they decided to apply to the Arts Council to take it on to full production. The company had been established in 2008 to produce new work for Limerick audiences, and had success with 15 main-stage productions, and eight national tours. However, formal Arts Council support was elusive. With their application for Gravity (A Love Story), they were finally successful in obtaining a project award, enabling them to develop the resources needed to bring Flynn’s complex play to the stage. The pandemic put a temporary halt to production plans, but Flynn believes – like some of his characters might – that the intervention of fate has benefited all involved. “It’s all the better for it,” he says. “Because I think I really found the target during that time, to find exactly what it is I wanted to say.”
Gravity (A Love Story) is not the Kerry-based writer’s first play, but it is his most ambitious, and the biggest production of his work to date. His 2016 play Microdisney was nominated for the Stewart Parker Trust Best New Play Award, while his radio plays have won both the PJ O’Connor Award for Radio Drama and the BBC World Service / British Council International Radio Drama Competition. Last year, the Bestseller Theatre produced his one-act psychological surgical thriller The Day of the Zebra, in a production directed by Flynn himself.
Usually, Flynn likes to direct his own work. “When you have written something new, you want to make sure that the rhythm is there,” he says. “It is not so much about control. It is more to do with the entire aesthetic and wanting to see that through.” However, with Gravity (A Love Story) he feels confident that the production team all understand the necessity of “marrying the intellectual journey [of the play] to the romantic journey. The importance of simplicity, even as we are weaving these high ideas into the fabric of the drama.”
His role in the rehearsal room this time, he says, is one of an invested audience member. “It is amazing for me as the writer to see the connections crystallise, to see the actors pulling at the threads, and making evaluations. But [theatre-making] has the same principle as building an aircraft: anything that causes noses to dip you need to get rid of.” Flynn is happy to point the play’s strengths out to me, but he is also flexible enough to accept that rehearsals are about refining the work, making the text work for the stage.
If the premise for Gravity (A Love Story) seems unlikely, Flynn says it is exactly the kind of play he is interested in watching and writing. “I do like to chase the big game, the big ideas, especially when I am writing something for the stage, to make it worth it.” He talks about his admiration for Tony Kushner’s Angels in America – “It is brilliantly outrageous. It takes these two couples and extrapolates their lives across an entire continent over 6½ hours” – and cites the “intellectual ambition” in the work of Tom Stoppard as an inspiration.
Disaster is always hovering whenever you do anything new; but, as terrified as you are, you are also exhilarated
With Gravity (A Love Story) he was interested in exploring how “Einstein’s theory of relativity, the discovery of gravity made us think about the world in a different way, how it heightened our perspective on the world. And that is what art does, what it should do.” Set over a few hundred years and tracking the billion-year journey of a gravity wave, Flynn dramatises his central thesis through short scenes involving dozens of characters, historical and fictional, played by four actors. We meet Einstein and Newton, summoned to watch the legacy of their ideas unfold. We see Galileo Galilei and Dickens, puzzling out their own thought experiments as scientist and writer respectively. We meet David Garrick (playing Hamlet), while Joan of Arc on her pyre makes a fleeting appearance, both as herself and as an embodied apparition to an Irish servant 200 years later. We meet a contemporary couple scaling the heights of the Mourne Mountains to get close to the stars. All the while, “the universe-defining sound of two black holes colliding one point four billion years earlier resounds, [gives] way to the heartbeat chirp as a gravity wave begins its journey through space at the speed of light.”
If all this sounds like a dizzyingly complex concept to condense into two hours of stage time, at its heart is something far easier to grasp, says Flynn. “The great scientists, just like kids, are asking the simplest questions. Basically: ‘Why does an apple fall to the earth?’” Of course, Flynn knows there is a chance that the audience might not get this. “Disaster is always hovering whenever you do anything new; but, as terrified as you are, you are also exhilarated.” It is with a leap of faith, after all, that great discoveries are made.
Gravity (A Love Story) runs from February 16-19 at Belltable Theatre, Limerick.