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Copenhagen

Michael Frayn
Sheffield Theatres
Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield

Geoffrey Streatfeild and Henry Goodman in Copenhagen Credit: Manuel Harlan
Barbara Flynn and Henry Goodman in Copenhagen Credit: Manuel Harlan

In a long and distinguished career, Michael Frayn has been a hugely productive writer of stage and TV plays, novels, screenplays, newspaper articles, translations and philosophical essays.

In contrast to his well known and successful comedies, Alphabetical Order and Noises Off, the three plays that make up the Michael Frayn Season reflect his concern with moral and philosophical issues, personalised through the inter-relationships of his stage characters.

German occupied Copenhagen was the meeting place in 1941 between two brilliant nuclear physicists: the half-Jewish Niels Bohr (awarded the Nobel Prize in 1922 for work on the structure of the atom) and German Werner Heisenberg (Nobel prize in 1932 for his theory of quantum mechanics) who had worked as Bohr’s assistant in Copenhagen in the 1920s. The time was critical since both German and Allied physicists were struggling to unlock the secrets of nuclear fission, which would lead to the production of the atom bomb, perceived by both sides as a war winning device.

The meeting allows Frayn to explore a number of important moral and philosophical issues: the relationship between science and government, particularly in time of war; the ‘morality’ of enabling the production of ‘weapons of mass destruction’; nationalistic and ethnic imperatives; and, at a more human level the ambiguity of intention and the uncertainty of memory.

At the beginning of the play, Niels and Margrethe Bohr tell us that they are dead and look back on three meeting with Heisenberg before and after the war, as well as the crucial meeting in 1941. They are attempting to determine the reason for the meeting. What was it that Heisenberg wanted from Bohr? Information? Absolution? Love?

The staging of the play is very simple: a wall of frost stained windows and three functional chairs. This helps to emphasise the dream-like, other-worldly quality of the play as uncertain memories are revisited again and again until a surprising revelation is eventually made.

Henry Goodman (Bohr), Barbara Flynn (Margarethe) and Geoffrey Streatfield (Heisenberg) humanise their characters, being much more than ciphers for the presentation of argument. The play is rich in information about particle physics, nuclear fission, wave theory and the ‘uncertainty principle’, which is made more palatable and comprehensible by the actors’ use of illustrative gesture and symbolic patterns played out on the stage floor.

Frayn skilfully interweaves episodes from the characters’ lives with metaphors drawn from the scientific information. So, a run down a ski slope helpfully characterises the difference between the two scientists’ approach to their work, one headlong and instinctive, the other slow and reflective, and simultaneously introduces a philosophical concept (Schrödinger’s cat) relevant to Heisenberg’s ability to hold two contrasting attitudes in mind at the same time.

The three actors play with intelligence, variety of pace and emotional depth, making the most of opportunities for humour. An important personal horror for Bohr, which cannot be spoken of, is his failure to save his son in a boating accident. The deep grief and guilt of this personal loss is set against the ongoing horror of the deportation and incarceration of Jews across Europe, and the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

There is much to bite on in this play, which rewards attentive listening. An excellent and beautifully acted production of a complex piece of writing.

Reviewer: Velda Harris