The Physicists

Friedrich Dürrenmatt, in a new version by Jack Thorne
Donmar Warehouse

Sophie Thompson and John Heffernan Credit: Johan Persson
Oliver Coopersmith and John Heffernan Credit: Johan Persson
John Heffernan and Miranda Raison Credit: Johan Persson

The Physicists is a slow burn play that has not been seen in London in the half century since it was originally written by Swiss playwright, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, a man lauded far more in Europe than this country.

The work owes this revival, in a new version by Jack Thorne, to its presence on a German A Level syllabus when it intoxicated the Donmar's Artistic Director, Josie Rourke.

Through the first half of this Rourke's 2¼ hour long production, it can be hard to see the attractions of the allegorical drama taking place in front of a Robert Jones-designed wall comprising countless dazzling white doors. The piece appears to be an absurdist confection that might a distant cousin of Harold Pinter's The Hothouse or What the Butler Saw by Joe Orton.

Three men occupy a sanatorium or lunatic asylum run by the eccentric Dr von Zahnde, a hunchbacked lady at least as mad as they are, Sophie Thompson relishing the opportunity to act the fool.

The trio respectively believe themselves to be Isaac Newton (Justin Salinger), Albert Einstein (Paul Bhattacharjee) and Johann Wilhelm Mobius (named after the man famed for his strip). The joke here is that the last-named, convincingly played by John Heffernan, really is the sane physicist himself, albeit the genius is afflicted by daily visitations from King Solomon.

The play opens with John Ramm as an Orton-esque Detective investigating the second of three murders of athletic nurses by The Physicists.

The first half can be amusing and unsettling in typically absurdist fashion but does little more than set up the events after the interval.

The play now becomes a deeply metaphorical exploration of the madness of the world in the mid-twentieth century.

Two members of the trio reveal different identities, as does Dr von Zahnde. Having run out of female nurses (all Miranda Raison, who plays a mean corpse) the madhouse uses a pair of ex-boxing champs instead and they quickly forsake medical white uniforms for totalitarian black storm trooper chic.

By this stage, despite their murderous tendencies, the inmates are showing every sign of being the good guys, representing the ordinary man in his fight against the worst excesses perpetrated on the globe by the scientists supporting Hitler, Stalin and their successors.

Although it takes some time to get going, The Physicists eventually has a considerable impact on viewers, although in the days of a relatively united Europe, probably not quite as great as it would have done in 1962 when the world was fearful of its impending end.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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