Queensland Theatre Company is finishing its 2011 season with the world premiere of Fractions, a complex and interesting play about faith versus reason, the individual versus the mob, the dilemmas of being a female scholar, and more.
Fractions was written by Brisbane-born (now Melbourne-based) playwright Marcel Dorney, who won the 2010-11 Queensland Premier's Drama Award for his script. It tells the story of Hypatia, a real-life mathematician and philosopher, who is believed to have been the final guardian of Egypt's great Library of Alexandria in the fifth century.
The magnificent library is said to have held hundreds of thousands of scrolls. While there are contradictory accounts of its tragic destruction, one popular version has it torched by a Christian mob, who some time later murdered Hypatia in the culmination of long-simmering religious and political conflicts.
On this history, Dorney and director Jon Halpin have built a complex play that casts a wide net. We meet Hypatia (played by Jolene Anderson, known to many for her TV role in All Saints) in her library, speaking to young Christian deacon Synesius (Lucas Stibbard, recently seen in Boy Girl Wall). When Synesius declares his love for her, she explains in uncompromising fashion that she cannot reciprocate, for she is dedicated to the intellectual life.
As the play unfolds, we see that Hypatia's uncompromising dedication to reason will be her downfall. Her refusal to adopt Christian beliefs earns her the enmity of the Bishop's nephew, Kyril (Jason Klarwein), and her forthright discussions with Roman Prefect Orestes (Hugh Parker) also put her in peril. Already in a tenuous position as a female scholar, she ends up at the centre of a maelstrom that will destroy her and her beloved library.
Fractions is a challenging play, with a lot going on. Along with Hypatia's dissertations on neo-Platonic thought, you'll get quick lessons on Christian-Pagan-Jewish relations in Alexandria, on the role of educated women in ancient times, on how the Romans used political spin to keep the mob under control -- and more.
Some reviewers have found the play overly didactic, and I agree that a number of scenes could be trimmed. But I have to say that I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of keeping up with not just the various sub-plots but also the array of ideas being explored. And it was interesting to find modern resonances in many of the play's themes.
Jolene Anderson as Hypatia has the difficult task of breathing life and passion into a character who's required to deliver many of the longest, most cerebral speeches. While I yearned for more light and shade from her character in the first half, by the second half I found myself caring for a woman whose intellectual integrity put her in an invidious position.
Likewise, Stibbard's Synesius grew over the course of the play, as did Klarwein's Kyril. Hugh Parker, as Prefect Orestes, brought a welcome wit and masculinity to his role. Eugene Gilfedder, as barbarian Rika, evolved from buffoon to sage, with some of his later speeches among the most moving in the play.
Set design by Simone Romaniuk was effective, with the library's scrolls and darkened corridors framing the action. A muted palette echoed the 'shades of grey' that characterised many of the on-stage debates.
Writer Dorney and director Halpin have taken on an ambitious task, crafting a play that explores not just an important moment in history, but also universal themes at the core of intellectual, political and religious life. While I'd like see more 'heart' to balance the 'head' in the first act, and some judicious trimming of dialogue, I still found Fractions an interesting production, well worth seeing.