The more we understand, the less we understand. As human knowledge increases, so does individual ignorance. Every new discovery brings new things to fear. These are the paradoxes that “Chimerica” writer Lucy Kirkwood goes after in her dazzling new play, “Mosquitoes.” A ballooning family drama set against the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, it pits our nearest and dearest against the furthest ends of the universe, stretching from the domestic to the apocalyptic. It is a vast play of ideas – too vast, perhaps, but too clever too care – that makes a strong case that the information age is also the age of anxiety.
Now playing at London’s National Theatre in a premiere directed by Rufus Norris, “Mosquitoes” is, primarily, a tale of two sisters. Alice (Olivia Williams) is an experimental physicist working in Geneva, a tiny cog in the team searching for the Higgs Boson, the disappearing God Particle. She has a teenage son on the spectrum, Luke (Joseph Quinn), who shares a depressive, destructive streak with the scientist father that walked out on them years before – a black hole in their lives.
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Jenny (Olivia Colman) is, in many ways, her sister’s opposite: a skittish homebody in a jumble of clothes, who smokes, drinks and sells health insurance over the phone. She’s an unhealthy mix of skepticism and superstition, a woman who trusts her horoscope more than her doctor. After years of IVF treatment, she lost her first child to measles, after refusing the controversial MMR vaccine despite all the evidence declaring it safe – with no link to autism.
The pair of them pull in two different directions: Alice is rational, Jenny goes with her gut. Both are superbly played. Williams shows Alice’s even keel, the level-headed professional largely in control of her life, Colman superbly shows Jenny’s volatility. She combines a bubbly – if straightforward – surface with the deep well of sadness and guilt beneath. The two of them see the world very differently.
Through them, Kirkwood slams fact into feeling, scientific reality into subjective experience of it. Those things, she argues, frequently diverge as the truth gets distorted in reaching us: media hysterics and conspiracy theories, misunderstandings and simple emotions all intrude. As the Large Hadron Collider is switched on – a huge day for Alice, incomprehensible to her sister – reporters play up the possibility of imminent apocalypse despite negligible odds. The idea, designed to lodge in our deepest fears, inevitably takes hold.
Kirkwood’s point is that we feel information as much as we know or understand it, and that leaves each of us in our own world. While she structures the play around science, studding it with collisions and disappearances, creation and destruction – all those qualities we associate with the Higgs Boson – she fills it with questions of communication: language barriers, intellectual gaps and niche cultural references. It’s a play full of personal technology – noise-blocking headphones and social media channels – and the sense is of a world pulling apart.
Kirkwood extends that metaphor to science. Between domestic scenes, Paul Hilton’s mysterious scientist, snow on his lab coat, talks us through the possible ends of the universe: expansions and contractions, freezes and tears. Finn Ross’s wondrous projections turn the theatre into a planetarium, and, if that occasionally feels like ‘Curious Incident’ for adults, we can’t but feel – and fear – this information. It lodges in our brains, despite its irrelevance on our everyday lives.
“Mosquitoes” drives at this. As in Nina Raine’s “Consent,” seen in the same theater earlier this year, everything is relative. Small things loom large; major issues get overlooked. Mosquitoes kill more people than terrorism, and the £6 billion spent seeking the Higgs Boson could do untold good elsewhere. Kirkwood slams the present into the far-flung future, the family into the world. She zooms out to apocalypse, then in to a teenager waiting for a text or a worried mother waiting for a phone call, to an old woman wetting herself. The death of a child can feel like the end of the world, but so can a compromising photo gone viral. Every birth is a Big Bang. Norris’ nimble production handles its shifts in scale deftly, swinging from the cosmic to the domestic, from the digital to the real with the utmost of ease.
It all depends on perspective and, fittingly, “Mosquitoes” is a play without a center. Each of its characters is a protagonist in their own right, the hero of their own story. Luke’s crush on his schoolmate Natalie (Sofia Barclay) is the most important thing in his life, just as his grandmother Karen (Amanda Boxer) is preoccupied with her own past achievements – the Nobel Prize she should have won. Alice focuses on work; Jenny on grief. Kirkwood’s play is a collider of its own. It bumps people together, just as life does.
Admittedly, that makes for an overload of plot. At one point, Alice is confronted with an incontinent mother, a suicidal sister and a missing son simultaneously, as if all her Christmas TV specials had come at once. That cannot but stretch credibility, but it also extends the play’s scope. Idea on idea goes into the pot: mental health, social media, superstition, globalization, faith. This is how theater thinks. It stirs ideas together, lets them collide, and leaves us to find our own connections and feel our way through. It’s always subjective; not a shared experience, but simultaneous one. In a fraying world, it brings us back together.