The edges of the stage are lined with books. In one corner, a black overcoat and hat hang on a little stand. In the other, there is a rather comical marble bust of Isaac Newton. On the wall is a green chalkboard, filled with complicated mathematical equations. In the center sits an elegant writing desk, and on it lies a violin case.
At the front there is a comfortable looking armchair, and in it sits Albert Einstein. He is wearing a white shirt, and brown trousers held up by suspenders. He has a little tummy, and his halo of grey hair and bushy moustache complete the picture. His feet are bare, because Einstein sees socks as an unnecessary inconvenience.
He is trying to explain to us his theory of relativity, but it isn’t going too well. He seems to sense that, and suddenly a smile crosses his face.
“Okay, think about this.” he says with a distinct German accent. “If you sit on a hot stove for a minute, it will feel like an hour. But talk to a pretty girl for an hour, and it will feel like a minute!” The audience bursts out laughing.
This weekend, residents of Lahore were treated to a masterful, soul-stirring performance by a gifted veteran of cinema. Watching Messi drop a shoulder, or Curry floor someone with a crossover, or Einaudi play a piece at the piano- or even John Cleese crack a joke – is to watch an artist do what they were born to do. It is enchanting. And for those lucky enough to get seats at the Al-Hamra Arts Council this weekend – tickets sold out within hours- the opportunity to watch Naseeruddin Shah grace the stage on a rare trip to Pakistan was just as magical.
For just over an hour, the audience is held spellbound by a mesmerizing performance. Shah’s Einstein strolls around his office at Princeton, and launches into witty, thought-provoking musings on a delightful melange of topics.
Much of the play is autobiographical. Einstein tells us about his childhood, about his parents and his difficulties in school. He moves onto his time as a patent clerk, when he wrote four papers that revolutionized science. He describes with wonderful clarity the quirky details of his life that have become legendary- his love for music and the violin, his celebrity status in America, his friendship with Charlie Chaplin, and his surprise at being asked to become President of Israel. Interspersed throughout Einstein’s charismatic, entertaining and witty monologue are some of his most famous quotes: Shah precedes each with the faintest of pauses, and then delivers – with great aplomb.
However, Shah’s performance is enchanting precisely because it is dynamic. Light-hearted moments of humour segue seamlessly into more grave, often poignant ones. When he describes Einstein’s public humiliation at a lecture hall in Berlin, Shah’s voice rises by a few octaves, and the effect is frightening. Shah’s greatest achievement is to portray Einstein not as an aloof genius detached from the world around him, but as a charismatic – and undeniably human- individual, very much a part of it. His depiction of Einstein’s vulnerabilities, his insecurities, and his flaws as a human being is stirring. Einstein’s horror at the misuse of science as a weapon of destruction is moving, as is his remorse at the way his dedication to his work takes a toll on his relationships with those around him.
As a theatrical experience, Einstein is magical. Both the lights and the background music are used to great dramatic effect, setting the tone and elevating the experience. At one point, Einstein reflects how as a child he used to imagine running after light. As he does this, he caresses a yellow beam of light in his hands. The background music shifts in line with Einstein’s thoughts, from uplifting classical music during his serene musings, to the ominous blaring of war sirens as he despairs over the use of science as a weapon of war. Perhaps as a tongue in cheek reference to the role of higher dimensions in theoretical physics, Shah’s Einstein shatters the fourth wall completely at one point; he asks two volunteers to come on stage so he can demonstrate, using a blanket and a melon, how gravity is caused by a warping of space-time.
It is perhaps unfortunate that within our academic culture there exists such a divide between the arts and the sciences. Indeed, it takes intellectual curiosity and a significantly developed aesthetic sense to be able to appreciate either. And after all, both are just different sets in the Venn diagram of human enlightenment*. While watching the play, I was reminded strongly of Einstein’s Dreams, an international best-seller that has been translated into thirty languages. I was reminded also of Cosmos, The Theory of Everything, Interstellar, The Imitation Game, and this mind-blowingly beautiful tribute to Nikola Tesla. The perceived divide between the arts and sciences could well be one that exists largely in our heads, as a direct by-product of intellectual narrow-mindedness. But scientists like Tyson, writers like Lightman, film-makers like Nolan and performers like Naseerudin Shah are helping to bridge that gap, and for that they deserve our eternal gratitude.
*all sets are not always of the same size