John Doyle’s moving play of physics coming to terms with biology proves far less elusive than the Higgs Boson.

State Theatre Company of South Australia and Sydney Theatre Company

Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide, October 17

Plays that deal with the conflict between science and religion are not new and it is a debate that will continue to rage. It’s always interesting to see which side wins out as the curtain falls. But with John Doyle’s new play, Vere (Faith), it’s neither. Love reigns supreme. And we are left with the firm belief that, in the end, nothing else really matters.

The story beings with Vere, on stage in front of the curtain, delivering his final lecture and bidding farewell to his students. He is soon to fly to Switzerland to work with a team of fellow scientists on the Higgs Bosen particle. However a diagnosis of rapid onset dementia means the trip never happens. His career, and his life, is cut horribly and unjustly short.

Holding an ancient rock, a tool from the stone ages, Vere marvels at what man was, what he is now, and considers what it is that makes us all complete. He never fully answers the question, but he throws it out to his students for them to think on, just as all great professors should. And, just like all great playwrights, John Doyle’s Vere (Faith) does the same to his audience with his clever, heartbreaking and superbly entertaining play. 

The action moves at perfect pace. As the dementia rapidly takes hold of Vere’s brilliant mind, the underlying urgency of the situation is coupled with an intrinsic denial of the terrifying reality. Clinging onto normality seems like a good idea, but it’s also impossible.

Despite the deeply serious subject matter, there are liberal doses of humour throughout. The string of politically incorrect jokes amongst the university staff in the Physics department created a wave of such infectious laughter the audience could hardly stop. There is so much clever banter and ingenious retorts, delivered with perfect timing; it gives the characters, and the audience, a perfect shield from the looming tragedy.

Interestingly, even during moments of seeming madness, Vere is often more articulate and astute than those around him. He recites poetry, appreciates art, debates theology, and revels in theories. It seems there is nothing he doesn’t know. But while the disease stops him making scientific discoveries, it also gives him lucid moments of emotional clarity too and he discovers what is truly most important to him. His family.  

A few elements of the set are surprisingly awkward. The lectern at the start seems unnecessary, particularly as it has to be wheeled off by a rather embarrassed stage hand; the boxed arrangement of desks in the first act forces some unnatural moves, and a conversation around a dining table is never easy to play.  But thankfully many beautiful staging features and elements outweighed these. The sliding away of the office walls in the first act and the labyrinth of doors in the second was simple, elegant and poignant. And the final scene was particularly moving as doors and lights symbolised a freed mind.

Touches of red, the colour of love, pepper the stage – a phone, t-shirt, books and flowers – and juxtapose objects from one place to the next. The symbolism of red wine is clear too; a Grange that’s past its prime, much like Vere. Beetroot gets a lot of attention (perhaps because of its colour, or maybe due to its supposed superior health benefits). All serve to support the beautiful image of a woman in red remembered dearly and often by Vere as his late wife.

This collaboration between the State Theatre Company of South Australia and the Sydney Theatre Company has pulled together a rich pool of theatrical talent. Paul Blackwell’s Vere is charming and lovable. His journey through the piece is well crafted and controlled and he is supported ably by all. But the standout is Geoff Morrell as Ralph, the lecherous vice chancellor, and Roger, the rather stupid but principled Reverend. His embodiment of each character, which if handled badly could result in cringe-worthy caricatures, is an acting masterclass.

In the final scene, Vere looks to the stars and talks about the most valuable human quality of them all, imagination, and the power of love. This play is rich in both but at its core is a sincere and heart-warming relationship between a father and son. Despite laughing loudly, and often, one never forgets it.

John Doyle wrote this play for his father, Tom Doyle, while watching him lose his mind to this veracious and cruel disease. Vere (Faith) is dedicated to him. It is a beautiful tribute, full of intellect, tenderness and humour. Wherever or whatever his father is now, I can’t help but think he must be feeling incredibly proud.

Vere (Faith) is in Adelaide until November 2 then at the Sydney Opera House, November 6-December 7.