It’s got ’em Rawlsin’ in the aisles: A Theory of Justice: The Musical
“As will be evident,” reads Ronnie Collinson’s (MPhil, Cambridge) interpretive essay on the back of the program, “The writers have not adopted a historical approach.” This is more than a bit of an understatement for a play featuring a rap battle between Locke (Alexander Stutt) and Hobbes (Andy Laithwaite), a barber shop quartet of Utilitarians (Henry Zeffman, Andy Laithwaite, James Skinner, Jacob Page), and a sparkly yellow gown-wearing, wand-waving, “deontological fairy godmother” Immanuel Kant (David Wigley).
John Rawl’s A Theory of Justice: the Musical, written by Eylon Aslan-Levy, Ramin Sabi, and Tommy Peto, is a delightfully absurdist romp through political philosophy from Socrates to Rawls. When philosophy student Fairness (Rosalind Isaacs) falls down a time vortex in 1970s Harvard, John Rawls (Ollie Nicholls) jumps down after her, convinced that only she can help him write the theory that he craves so badly. Villainous libertarian Robert Nozick (Luke Rollason) and objectivist Ayn Rand (Clare Joyce) conspire to stop Rawls, chasing him through time and attempting to create a theory that will allow them to evade taxes and pursue their own selfish ends.
While stars Nicholls and Isaacs were slightly lacklustre, the strength of Justice was its unabashedly hilarious and fiercely dynamic supporting cast. The chemistry and presence of the two villains, Rollason and Joyce, were enough on their own to carry the play. Joyce’s Rand was a vortex herself: seductive, evil, and absolutely absorbing, even as she tangoed, bellowed in an incredibly campy Russian accent, and threatened Rawls with a whip. My only complaint is that the play could not feature more of her.
Much of the joy of Justice was its sheer absurdity and irreverence: a kind of communal release from the high-stakes pressure of academia. That said, I’m not so sure that the play would work outside an academic environment. There were some major diction problems with singers, further muddling already fast paced song lyrics; I’m not sure someone unfamiliar with the term “State of Nature,” for example, would understand why Locke and Hobbes wanted to “shank” each other. And by the end of the play, the gag of portraying philosophers as extremely flamboyant was starting to become annoying. (I’m still trying to understand why Kant, a philosopher known for his innocent, childish appearance, was portrayed as a sexed-up drag queen.) But overall, “Justice” will certainly delight any overworked Oxford student. Bespeaking the cathartic release of frustration were the cheers from that audience that were elicited by Locke’s deadpan line to Nozack: “I think you overestimate the amount of time we have thought about this.”