Those magnificent men: Square Rounds @Finborough

After watching Square Rounds it’s tempting to ponder did the toilet inspire some of the great discoveries of science. The toilet features prominently in this production. The invention of the modern toilet created the need for synthetic fertiliser. Which in turn led to the creation of the chemical weapons and explosives used to devastating effect in the First World War.

And so goes Tony Harrison’s anti-war polemic about those who invented the great weapons of mass destruction. It’s having it’s first production in almost 30 years at the Finborough Theatre.

The set is in blacks and whites. Just like the world of science.  But the clarity of science is lost in the fog of war as each great invention with a noble purpose also serves a more destructive one. 

It’s depicted by an all-female ensemble to underscore that at wartime it was the women manning the factories. Doing all the work. And mostly spoken in verse. It’s a fascinating and provocative piece. With songs, projections and magic tricks, it moves briskly as it tells the tale of scientists without a plan.

After some historical context the piece focuses two characters. Sir Hudson Maxim who is inventing various explosives and jealous of his brother who invented the first automatic machine gun. And Fritz Haber, the German Jewish chemist who won the Nobel prize for pioneering work on poisonous gases. 

Haber also created the synthetic fertiliser used today to feed the world. Haber as portrayed by Philippa Quinn is torn between a desire to satisfy the war machine and give Germany an edge and to create a more humane way to die. And there enters chlorine gas as the solution. 

The title square rounds refers to the bullets reserved for the enemy that caused a more painful death. Today we can take solace that the use of chemical weapons is a red line that isn’t crossed. Much. But  in this era of strong men and realpolitik the period of the First World War doesn’t seem so alien anymore. 

Directed by Jimmy Walters, Square Rounds is at the Finborough Theatre until 29 September. 


Photos by Samuel Taylor

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