186: Fractions

23 Nov

Marcel Dorney’s Fractions is a brilliant, exciting drama that teaches us as much about history as it does about the present.

Jolene Anderson as Hypatia in Fractions

Jolene Anderson as Hypatia in Queensland Theatre Company's production of Fractions

I was fortunate enough to see the opening night of its world premiere performance and to read the script the following day. This double immersion was incredibly satisfying and I’m glad I had the experiences in the order that I did rather than reading the play and then seeing the show. (This way there were no preconceptions or disappointment over characters not matching my imagination.)

Fractions tells the story of Hypatia, philosopher, teacher, astronomer, mathematician and the last librarian of the Library of Alexandria. Dorney is quick to note that his work is fiction, taking the tiny amount we know about Hypatia and using it as a provocation for some big questions.

While Hypatia is often portrayed as a martyr, Dorney makes her more complex than this. His Hypatia appears proud, cold and stubborn but these are a direct result of her searing intellect. She has devoted herself to learning and to mathematics: there is no place in her life for relationships or ‘petty’ things like religion, love or politics and this is what causes her downfall.

Hypatia is oblivious to the climate outside her library. She doesn’t realise that she is hated and feared for being a pagan in a city that has recently become Christian. When she is advised to convert to Christianity to protect herself and her library, she refuses, seeing it as a betrayal of her ethics.

HYPATIA: I am a teacher of mathematics, Magistrate. That is my one essential quality: as fire burns, or water is wet, I teach mathematics, or I am not.

That quality, in turn, derives from a principle: the search for truth, through rational inquiry. I do not claim to know the truth about the Kosmos. I do claim a dedication – to describing the Kosmos more truly. It is this dedication, and only this, that justifies the breath I draw.

But if I was to use that breath to profess a faith – that I do not share – I could no longer claim dedication to that principle […]

So far, everything I’ve mentioned here is to do with the history but Fractions is also a mirror for us now. Fear of the other, clinging to doctrines to justify hate, censorship of thoughts that differ from the norm, driving out other religions and destroying anything that challenges your faith – these are all just as present now as they were in 400 AD.

The only jarring note in the play (for me) was Dorney’s choice to incorporate contemporary slang in the often poetic and beautiful dialogue. Characters refer to each other as ‘mate’ and ‘kid’, there’s the occasional ‘f*ck’ and each time it happens, the line stands out like dog’s balls.

I understand the reasoning behind the decision to modernise the language. Dorney didn’t want to write a costume drama, he wanted it to be relevant and to speak to audiences right now in ways that they (we) understand. But, for me, each time there was a particularly ocker line I was thrown out of the play and back into my own skin. When Hypatia says, “You gonna protect me, are you, kid?” I expect her to ride off into a Western sunset and the world of the play cracks a little.

Aside from this miniscule quibble, Fractions was an absolute joy to read and to see. It left me with a hunger to know more about Hypatia, Orestes, Kyril and Synesius and with a deep love for the barbarian Rika.

As someone who was born stubborn and sticks to her morals and ethics even when doing so is blatantly stupid and self-harming, I found personal and philosophical comfort and warnings in Hypatia’s story. And her terrible quandary was just as bad as the titular one in Sophie’s Choice. Fearing the imminent destruction of her library, Hypatia has to choose which of the unique, priceless, books to save.

HYPATIA: I have, first, to – find the five hundred books out of eighty thousand, which I can tell you –

– but I won’t.
Let’s consider, instead, that we then have to splinter that tiny fraction into five … each of which has to contain enough of the history of ten separate disciplines, so that even if all four of its sisters were intercepted and destroyed –
When I say ‘we’, of course, I mean me. This is my job.

I had goosebumps and felt sick just at the thought of how much was lost, forever, and the small fraction that Hypatia saved.

If you’re in Brisbane, hurry and see the Queensland Theatre Company production of Fractions before it finishes. It’s also playing at Hothouse Theatre in Wodonga next year.

Publisher: Playlab Press

Cast: 4M, 1F

4 Responses to “186: Fractions”

  1. Jenna May 5, 2014 at 5:37 am #

    Hi Katherine, thank you so much for your great description of this play! I am interested in potentially purchasing or asking Marcel if he might be willing to share a copy (!). Based on your knowledge of the play, do you feel it has strong monologues for Hypatia? I am hoping to use it for a dramatic (or comedic) piece in audition situations. I appreciate your help! Many thanks.

  2. Jenna May 5, 2014 at 2:30 pm #

    Hi Katherine, fantastic! Do you think Marcel would be open to my contacting him to ask for a copy? If so, I would be grateful if you could potentially put me in touch with him. My e-mail address is jennazhu@gmail.com. Otherwise, I will look into obtaining a hard copy from Playlab. Thank you again, and I appreciate your help! Best of luck with your thesis, too. 🙂

    • Jenna May 6, 2014 at 3:54 pm #

      I mean, congratulations on your doctorate!

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