The interlinked stories of Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla are fascinating; their “current wars” over the best way of supplying electricity, the suggestion that they lost the Nobel Prize because of their mutual antipathy, the shifts in their relative reputations as the years pass by. However, you won’t learn much about any of that here. This production takes the pair as a jumping-off point for a surreal journey, exploring the cult of personality (Edison) and the stereotype of the mad scientist (Tesla).
Despite the title, the show focusses on Tesla, and we follow him from Serbia to America as he goes to work for Edison’s company. There, his genius is constrained by some rather bizarre working practices: for example, external recording devices (i.e. paper) have been banned. Tesla is portrayed as an ethereal character, obsessive about his work, but with no desire for worldly success. He constantly seeks out Edison – wanting to share his ideas – while others warn him to escape Edison’s influence.
Edison himself is a shadowy sinister figure, never centre stage but prowling on the periphery. He appears on projections and in voice-overs, urging his employees to think, to share their work, and to “follow the light”. Through a capella singing, and regimented movement representing industrialised processes, his workers appear to worship him.
There is a lot of talent here, and the physical theatre and singing are skillfully done – but I'm left wondering what it's all in aid of. Every scene in a work should contribute to the whole, and there are too many scenes here where I just didn’t know what was going on. Flashbacks from Tesla’s Serbian childhood are performed in a language I don't understand; an early one is subtitled, but later ones aren't. The actor playing Edison comes on in a change of costume and clowns through a morass of golden ticker tape.
There are historical facts behind some of the more bizarre moments. Edison’s company did make a film Electrocuting an Elephant, but there’s no evidence that Edison was involved directly, or that his staff were anything more than observers. Tesla, meanwhile, was obsessed with feeding and caring for pigeons; he even claimed to have loved one. But here it is taken to another level. A pigeon is always watching Tesla, spying on him… even trying to drown someone in a bucket.
As a cautionary tale about the exploitation of the workers by capitalist power, it has potential. Edison is believed to have passed off many inventions by his employees as his own. Yet Tesla only worked for him for a few months, and for most of his life was a rival businessman. The truth is just that, when it came to commerce, Tesla wasn't very good.
This is the tale of Edison and Tesla as told through News of the World headlines; it picks out the most outlandish and exaggerated parts of the story, and puts together something that simply doesn’t cohere. I’m no cheerleader for documentary reality, but I do like to understand what story is being told. And if this isn't a realistic reworking of Edison and Tesla's relationship… then what is it?