Theatre: The eyes don't have it

Copenhagen Cottesloe, National Theatre, London

Throughout Michael Frayn's new play Sara Kestelman wears an olive dress cut just below the knee with chocolate-coloured piping and matching shoes. I tell you this because you could watch Copenhagen with your eyes shut and lose virtually nothing.

In common with many contemporary playwrights, notably Tom Stoppard, whose The Invention of Love began life in this same theatre, Michael Frayn elides historical characters, facts and debate to produce a play of ideas. It's difficult to remember where this vogue for "faction" began, but Terry Johnson made it fashionable in Insignificance, and he vindicated himself with the scene in which Marilyn Monroe illustrates the theory of relativity to Einstein with, if memory serves, a torch, train set and balloon. It must be conceded, however, that even Stoppard's not altogether theatrically riveting play is an evening at the Folies Bergere compared with Frayn's austere three-hander.

The people in question are Nobel prize-winning Danish physicist Niels Bohr (David Burke), his wife Margrethe and his former assistant - and Nobel prize winner in his own right - the German physicist Werner Heisenberg (Matthew Marsh, sounding for all the world like Martin Bell), who formulated the Uncertainty Principle. In his programme notes, Frayn points out that he is not the first person to draw parallels between Heisenberg's discoveries and his life. The connection is made in the biography Uncertainty by David Cassidy, which leads one to wonder if this is the same David Cassidy who recorded the song "How Can I be Sure?"

Frayn's play springs from a disturbing visit that the politically compromised Heisenberg made to his friend in 1941 when Denmark was occupied. History disputes what happened between them, but the two men were separately implicated in the development of atomic fission and the bomb; a return visit in 1947 left the earlier mistrust unresolved.

In order to cloak theoretical discussions about the moral responsibilities of science in dramatic guise, the action takes place after all three have died. The minimal white set appears to take inspiration from the heaven sequences in Powell and Pressburger's fantasy A Matter of Life and Death, and we watch all three "looking for the answers they never found in life". As they repeatedly replay the fateful visit, Frayn uses their hindsight to unravel the secret of what really happened and why, elaborating upon a multiplicity of ideas: the ramifications of Bohr being half-Jewish, his powerlessness at the death of one of his sons, the egotism of research, the influence of politics on pure knowledge.

If strong ideas were all it took to make drama Frayn would be home and dry, but they're only the beginning. He is to be applauded for turning vastly complicated theories into listenable dialogue, but the language he uses to explore their daily lives is undernourished, and, in Michael Blakemore's production, the effect is theatrically arid. Characterisation comes a poor second to theoretical debate, making it a potentially fascinating radio play or, better still, a pamphlet. Freed of the cumbersome devices he invokes to disguise the lack of drama, Frayn's undeniably fascinating ideas would be able to flourish.

`Copenhagen' is in repertory at the Cottesloe (0171-452 3000)

News
newsAnother week, another dress controversy on the internet
Life and Style
Scientist have developed a test which predicts whether you'll live for another ten years
health
Life and Style
Marie had fake ID, in the name of Johanna Koch, after she evaded capture by the Nazis in wartime Berlin
historyOne woman's secret life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

    £7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

    Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

    Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

    Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

    £26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

    Day In a Page

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn