Theatre: Nuclear physicists have feelings too
Wednesday 10 February 1999
MICHAEL FRAYN'S Copenhagen is busy collecting every gong in sight. It has already swept up the Evening Standard and the Critics' Circle awards for best drama. If my experience is anything to go by - I found a copy of the play bizarrely shelved next to the Blue Guide to Denmark in my local library - it can only be a matter of time before it walks away with the pounds 1,000 Livingstone Award for Travel Writing.
The play's West End transfer with the same consummate cast (David Burke, Sara Kestelman and Matthew Marsh) fully confirms the justice of all this. You might imagine that the most striking difference in the shift from studio theatre would be the configuration of stage and audience. One of the play's great virtues is, after all, its absolute purity of focus. It trains its lens on characters who are arguing, in some stark limbo beyond the grave, about what really transpired when the German nuclear physicist Werner Heisenberg made his mysterious, fateful, inconclusive visit to his former teacher, Niels Bohr, in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen in 1941. Was his aim to try to warn the older man of the German atomic bomb programme or to recruit him for it; to give or to filch? And was Heisenberg's role in the slowing down of that programme evidence of virtue or scientific ignorance?
The play's austere concentration was heightened by placing the action on a bare circular set with part of the audience on steeply raked seats at the back like jurors in a never-ending tribunal. Yet the Duchess Theatre has such an intimate lecture-room atmosphere that the same conditions are easily reproduced. Seeing it again, I was struck by how powerfully it engages the feelings as well as the intellect, a fact perhaps originally under-emphasised.
For it is much more than a cerebral thriller about the shifting interpretations of that crucial meeting. It's also much more than just Sartre's Huis Clos rewritten for people with a PhD in atomic physics. Delicately applying Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle to his own life and to life in general, the play is a profound and haunting meditation on the mysteries of human motivation. It is also a poignant love story of sorts, the older scientist seeking, and then feeling betrayed by, a substitute son.
Michael Blakemore's superb production is wonderfully attentive to the play's recurring rhythms, as this trio endlessly re-enact the momentous encounter.
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