The Physicists, Donmar Warehouse, London 


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The Independent Culture

Life expectancy for a female nurse is on the low side, to put it mildly, at the Les Cerisiers, the private sanatorium in The Physicists, Friedrich Durrenmatt's absurdist tragicomedy from 1961.

Using a wittily spry new version by Jack Thorne, the play is revived now with great aplomb by Josie Rourke in a production that brings home how the piece, a quintessential product of the Cold War, is like what you might get if you were to hand over the concerns of Dr Strangelove to a team comprised of Pirandello and Stoppard.

Another nurse has just been murdered as the proceedings open.  Her killer was the inmate who thinks that he is Albert Einstein (Paul Bhattacharjee).  The previous fatality was the handiwork of the patient who imagines that he is Sir Isaac Newton (a very funny, campily mock-weirdo Justin Salinger).  In the course of the play, a further nurse will bite the dust.  Is it because they have started to rumble that the three mad men are not all that they seem?  Certainly, a more suitable case for treatment would seem to be Sophie Thompson's gorgeously grotesque Dr Matilda Zahnd, the hunchbacked, dogmatic head of the institution who, with characteristic over-emphasis, declares that “I decide who my patients think they are” to the joke-detective (lovely John Ramm)

Written under the threat of nuclear annihilation, The Physicists posits an extreme Pirandello-esque scenario in which a brilliant scientist is so paranoid that mankind will use his “System of All Possible Discoveries” for evil ends that he chooses to pose as a lunatic in order to pursue pure physics clandestinely in prison.  Shorn and scrawny in his pyjamas like a gaoled political dissident, John Heffernan is superlative at conveying both the wry, quixotic humanity of the man and the deep pain of the emotional sacrifices he's had to make.  When he deliberately alienates his former wife and sons by running violently amok so as to ease their conscience about imminently deserting him, you feel that this is a Prometheus who has provided his own liver-gnawing vulture.

The play could seem a clever, and now rather dated series of conceits and plot-twists that lead to a stand-off that is a barmy parody of Cold War espionage and mutually assured destruction.  But Rourke's achievement is to warm the proceedings with Heffernan's brilliant performance and to ensure that the dotty drolleries retain their sharp political edge.  Recommended.

To July 21; 0844 871 7624