Copenhagen

Michael Frayn

A Lyceum Production

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

(2009)

Review by Seth Ewin

High-energy 'physical' theatre, the three actors released plenty of emotions in this highly charged encounter between two of the twentieth century's leading theoretical physicists.

Frayn's play deals with the build-up to, and repercussions of, a brief visit by Werner Heisenberg (Owen Oakeshott) to Niels Bohr (Tom Mannion) in Copenhagen in 1941.

That the two met is true, what exactly was said is uncertain, and Frayn rather than thrust upon us a straightforward imagined narrative has the three characters themselves arguing posthumously about what actually happened. In this way the play allows an examination that goes beyond the physics of Heisenberg and Bohr and into many other areas, constantly creating links, throwing up ideas and stimulating thought.

The physics that Bohr and Heisenberg pioneered is full of fascinating ideas and Frayn's script engages well with these ideas, but it is the passion of the actors in this production that ensures they are passed on to even the least scientifically minded of the audience.

The two physicists are joined on stage by Bohr's wife Margrethe (Sally Edwards), a useful anchor to the high-minded discussion, Edwards may say less, but she gets her moments. Her sharp asides bring the arguments, and over-analysis, of the physicists down to earth.

The paternal nature of Bohr's relationship to Heisenberg is well developed, with Bohr the slower wiser figure attempting to keep in check Heisenberg's more rash and impetuous nature. The actors convey not just the physics well, but also the characters of these two men. Often in simple ways such as discussions of their shared hobbies of skiing and cards.

The characters' inner monologues are frequently vocalised, which makes sense as both men had lived in fear of what they said being bugged, so the internal became dislocated from the external. It also helped in addressing one of the plays main themes aside from physics, that of memory.

Perhaps a little unsubtle, it is difficult not to enjoy the exploration of uncertainty of a less scientific nature, the uncertain nature of why we did things in the past and what we were thinking. The cast do well to carry off this and Frayn's other parallels with the right degree of wit and understanding.

What were perhaps too heavy handed were the audio and visual additions, the scream and the globe at the end seemed wholly unnecessary. The bomb effect worked well, but might've been better as an ending to the whole play.

In terms of what really mattered though, the direction was spot on, the action of the play never faltered, the energy was terrific. For what was not a particularly naturalistic play, there was plenty of very real emotion.

The play's real triumph is to make one look again at the pivotal conflict of the last century and the idea of man playing God. Bohr himself links two of the war's real horrors: he narrowly escaped the holocaust and went on to assist in the A-bomb construction. Bohr and Heisenberg discuss who has more blood on their hands, showing how shaky possession of the moral high ground really is.

Bohr's speech on how science has changed mankind's position in the universe is eloquently delivered by Mannion, showing him as a philosopher as well as a physicist. This is given a dark twist by Margrethe, that nuclear self-destruction could destroy much more than mankind.

The impossibility of an impartial observer is also the case in theatre, so I would like to think that as a receptive audience member I might take a little credit for the exhilarating energy of this powerful performance.

Until 9th May