THE NATIONAL Theatre of Scotland’s production One Giant Leap last week was excellent – it was just a pity, at the Brae Hall performance at least, that so few people turned out to see it.
The giant leap of the title comprised a journey through time and space with our ancestors as they grappled with the mysteries of the universe.
It started in a domestic living room when a father was faced with the prospect of finding out the circumference of the earth for his son. The ancients of two thousand plus years ago managed it, he realised, by putting two sticks in the ground and somehow comparing shadows (coming up with the correct measurment of 25,000 miles) – and this led him to wonder about the state of knowledge and understanding through the ages.
The production ended in the same living room with the father contemplating the beauty of the earth – an illuminated blue globe on the living room shelf – after going on a trip through 2,000-plus years of history and belief.
The ancient Greeks worked out trigonometry (the study of triangles) and geology (the study of the earth), studied the phases of the moon and noticed that the sun rose in slightly different places every day, 360 in all, making 360 degrees.
The living room was darkened to explain the ancients’ thinking, with a subtle accompaniment of first Arab and then Greek music, and tennis balls as illustration. The sun and moon were considered gods and so were five “wandering” stars that did not behave like the other stars, which were fixed and formed a map useful for navigation. Thunder and lightning (complete with flashes and sound effects) were thought to be the anger of the gods. Splendid stuff.
Greek astronomer Ptolemy’s thinking was most influential. His theory was that the universe must have a centre and this must be the earth. How could it not be? And how did the various parts of it stay in place? An orrery (model of the universe) illustrated this. All the god-like bodies which were perfect and made of a substance called “quintessence” were enclosed in crystal spheres like goldfish bowls, and this idea persisted for centuries.
The audience was now taken into the Dark Ages, when the doctrine of an earth-centred universe was sung to the audience in liturgical plainsong. The earth did not move, the stars were lights fixed in a dome – and the church had created order out of chaos.
A change of pace followed with one of the actors sifting sand in a bowl. How many billion grains and how many stars in the solar system? Sand, we were told, made glass and glass made lenses and lenses made telescopes (cardboard tubes) and so we journeyed quickly into the modern age.
The ancients’ work was re-discovered in Constantinople, and taken back to Europe (a makeshift boat made of a shelf travelled through the living room). Then on to Copernicus and to Galileo, who, with a telescope, was able to see the surface of the moon was rocky and not perfect.
And so, in a rapidly-changing series of images on a screen and with stirring music, we were transported to the time of the moon landing 40 years ago, which appeared on the small living room TV screen accompanied by rousing music from Elbow.
The astronauts, we heard, thought the most stunning part of all was the sight of the beautiful blue earth from space.
Our fragile, damaged earth had three billion inhabitants at the time of the moon landing – now there are six billion. We have understanding of our solar system now – but do we have the wisdom to make the giant leap to ensure earth’s survival? We were left to ponder with the closing lines of the play: “We have one earth. Get your mind round that.”
This was a highly informative production which proceeded briskly. The three actors spoke clearly with clever use of scenery and lighting. The music enhanced the performance and the educational side was easy to follow – fortunately many schools will see it on its national tour.