The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci Shimmer at The Old Globe

Having just returned from Italy and having just finished reading The Agony and The Ecstasy, I was eager to see this play. It does an admirable job of giving us a glimpse into the inscrutable genius of Leonardo da Vinci.

The cast of eight takes turns playing da Vinci, and all but a few of the words spoken are taken directly from his notebooks. The notebooks were never intended for public consumption, and indeed were not discovered for hundreds of years. The notebooks contain everything from to do lists to incredibly detailed observations, such as how light and color is perceived to the viscous nature of blood in the arteries. The notebooks comprise some 5000 pages, apparently only a third of the total that he wrote during his lifetime. They are completely random and totally eclectic.

The play is a series of vignettes loosely held together by a few themes, one of which is the seeming dichotomy between physics and love. Another theme is flight, which the artist first experienced when visited by a falcon in his crib and then lifetime efforts of crating a mechanism to give man flight. (Isaacson’s superb biography includes a coda describing da Vinci’s seemingly impossible observations of hummingbirds).

The production (written and directed by Mary Zimmerman) presents somewhat convoluted but intriguing dissertations revolving around proportions, weight and force which are intermingled with the observation that “great love comes from great knowledge of the beloved object.” I also enjoyed the sequence when da Vinci discusses the phenomenon of sleep and dreams.

His famous treatises on the proportions of the human body is interpreted cleverly.

Because there is no narrator to provide any context it is therefore impossible to include any discussion of the Mona Lisa, which da Vinci carted around for years before delivering the commission. Many artists are loathe to consider their masterpieces finished.

In a discussion of human anatomy, several actors mimic the pose very close to the disputed last Leonardo. Twice during the production, we see da Vinci gazing into an impenetrable cave, likely a metaphor for his realization that he will never be able to complete all his inquiries or answer all the questions that arise from his observations.

The cast of The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci at The Old Globe, 2023.

The cast was not big enough to re-create The Last Supper, da Vinci’s magnum opus in terms of teaching painters and the world about the importance of creating perspective in only two dimensions. Nonetheless, the sequence on perspective cleverly unfolds with a series of ropes leading to a vanishing point. More time should have been spent on how da Vinci convinced painters, and again the world, that there should be no outlines around objects in a painting, because those lines do not exist in the real world.

The Agony and The Ecstasy is a doorstop of a book about Michelangelo’s lifetime, in which da Vinci make several appearances. Michelangelo makes a cogent argument that sculpture is superior to painting, but here da Vinci describes the sculptor as merely using brute force to create their art resulting in the artist looking like a baker, caked in white dust. The painter, however, creates his art in pleasant clothes, while listening to music or hearing poetry. Both artists have regardless gone down in history as masters.

Adeoye and Andrea San Miguel

There are also several sequences where the choreography of several actors resulted in imagery similar to David Byrne’s appealing American Utopia and his Knee Plays. The staging of the play at The Old Globe is very clever, with two banks of filing cabinets on which the actors occasionally climb and from which they draw various props. That aspect of the set design reminded me of the 1996 London exhibition “Spellbound: Art and Film in Britain,” in particular, Terry (Monty Python) Gilliam’s monolith of drawers.

Zimmerman’s direction of her play is sturdy. The cast is uniformly strong, each displaying both the physicality and the sensitivity reflective of the genius da Vinci himself.

(Photos by Jim Cox)

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.