Copenhagen

Michael Frayn
Salisbury Playhouse
(2003)

While a post graduate degree in nuclear physics is not a sine qua non for appreciation of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, now in performance at Salisbury Playhouse, a little knowledge will not be dangerous.

Douglas Rintoul's production contains its own lively artistic elements in John Arthur as Niels Bohr, so-called father of atomic physics, and David Phelan as Werner Heisenberg, the inventor of quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle. Joanna David, as Bohr's wife Margrethe, is, presumably, there to ensure that the discussion does not rise to a level utterly beyond the comprehension of a mortal audience.

The trouble is that Margrethe is no slouch when it comes to talk of quantum physics and on the moral issues she appears something of a research scholar.

Three characters, long after events and their own deaths, in search of an answer to one burning question: why in 1941 did Heisenberg, then working for the German Reich, visit the Jewish scientist Bohr, an Allies' man, in occupied Copenhagen?

Was he after help from Bohr that might give Germany the bomb before the Americans? Did he simply want to know what the Allies were up to? We're not going to resolve such explosive issues in a couple of hours. Yet the searching, often abrasive, debate by this illustrious trio makes powerful theatre.

Behind the empty, sometimes clouded, stage is an occasional glimpse of a research laboratory that appears, in all the circumstances, distinctly sinister. Who is working for whom? What is the moral position of the scientist when it comes to the restoration of peace at the cost of millions of lives? And did the answers really hang upon a packet of Lucky Strike cigarettes?

If it is not entirely essential to be informed to enjoy this performance, it is certainly necessary to come with a clear mind, untrammelled by distractions, especially those of the pre-theatre supper table.

The production runs until 22nd November.

Kevin Catchpole