In the 19th century, a very real wager occurred—between a creationist, John Hampden, and a naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace—to prove whether the earth was flat or round. Wallace was a scientist who had formulated a theory of evolution by natural selection but, unlike the more iconic Charles Darwin, did not publish his findings. Hampden was a conservative and a rector’s son, independently wealthy, who would spend a great deal of time making life very difficult for Wallace and his wife, Alice.
The Wager, presented by Theatre Gargantua, takes inspiration from this event and uses it not so much as a framing device, but as an echo—this violent clash of attitudes resonating ever outward into our present day social media and politics. By pitting the rigorous scientific method up against intuition and emotionality, this meta-theatrical spectacle explores the different ways we come into knowledge and even deconstructs the very notion of human knowledge.
Writer Michael Gorgon Spence and director by Jacquie P.A.Thomas have modelled the style and socially conscious thrust of The Wager on the Epic Theatre of Bertolt Brecht. The performers (Olivia Croft, Teiya Kasahara, François Macdonald and Michael Gordon Spence) frequently acknowledge the audience and the performance itself while using onstage instruments to provide musical accompaniment.
With a wide variety of styles—from a German opera to a flashy game show—The Wager tackles pressing issues like climate denial, anti-vaxxing campaigns and a culture of “alternative facts.” To create a sense of balance, some vignettes do provide social and emotional context for anti-scientific sentiment and do capture the deceptive comfort of ignorance. I found myself particularly sympathetic to the poor contestant in the game show segment who is forced to choose between harsh, inconvenient truths and comforting rhetoric.
Employing ladders and handheld screens, the performers dart and swoop across the stage, catching Laird Macdonald’s vibrant projections. While the production—especially the musical segments—feels spontaneous and organic, all stage business is focused and compelling.
The presentation, as a whole, is fluid and dynamic yet there are some breathtaking visuals that truly stand out. Particularly hilarious and haunting is a recurring storyline between two birds in flight as they discuss the pros and cons of religious belief. Perched on ladders, with projected clouds billowing behind, the performers dip and sway to Thomas Ryder Payne’s eerily stratospheric soundscape.
With quick yet striking vignettes, we glimpse a myriad of colourful characters as they flit in and out of view. The finale is particularly resonant as a sombre appeal to our sense of responsibility for the well-being of future generations. The Wager is genuinely thought-provoking and an impressive feat of showmanship.