Review

Copenhagen

Left to right: Ray Newton, Chris Janes and Claudia McKelvey
Ray Newton, Chris Janes & Claudia McKelvey

When I first started to write plays I was told that in order to generate script that was half-decent I needed to follow a number of basic rules. The play should have a good story with well-developed characters who, through the course of the play, take the audience with them on their journey. There should be a number of secondary stories that weave subtly together and blend seamlessly with the main story. There should be a good sprinkling of character conflict and subtext that sometime just before the end of act two converge into a dramatic zenith to be followed swiftly by the denouement and resolution. Interestingly, Copenhagen appears to ignore all of these principles and frankly it shows. It is a heavy, wordy script laden with discourses on scientific principles and philosophies that illustrate Frayn's meticulous research and, by now, his almost self indulgent grasp of quantum mechanics. Its instructional, didactic approach would not look out of place on an Open University course or in one of those learning zones programme transmitted at four in the morning. It is denser than a black hole from which not even a photon of humour can escape; and continuing with the analogy of light - which can exist as a particle or a wave - so this play, at times, existed in different forms. It was at times fascinating and at times exceedingly dull though not because of the efforts of the cast who had to deal as best they could with what at times sounded like pages from an AS level physics textbook. So now I have got that off my chest what is it all about?

... good, strong performances

The play is based on fact. Werner Heisenberg - the great theoretical physicist whose theory about the movement of nuclear particles 'The uncertainty principle revolutionised the thinking behind Quantum mechanics did go to Copenhagen in 1941 to meet Neils Bohr another great nuclear scientist. The play asks the question: why did Heisenberg - then in the 'employ' of the Nazi's go to speak to Bohr ? - who , soon afterwards, was spirited away to America to join the Allies in their nuclear programme to develop and Atomic bomb? Was it to find out about how far the allied powers had progressed in the development of nuclear weapons? Was it to warn Bohr that the Germans were working on a bomb? Was it to seek advice about how to build a bomb? Was it a ploy on behalf of Heisenberg who wanted to look as though he was being patriotic and trying to build a bomb for the Nazis and then, driven by conscience, did he knowingly try to thwart the German nuclear programme by pleading ignorance? Through a series of 'flashbacks' set in Bohr's house in Copenhagen and the characters of Heisenberg, Bohr and Bohr's wife Margrethe, Frayn attempts to throw some photons on to the situation and reveals that probably - through arrogance and laziness [Heisenberg didn't do the Diffusion equation ] Heisenberg grossly miscalculated the critical mass of plutonium needed to build an atomic bomb. But to be fair to Heisenberg, he couldn't be blamed entirely for the debacle since he appeared to be working virtually alone; most of the best nuclear physicists were Jewish and had fled Nazi Germany at the beginning of the war and ended up working on the Manhattan Project in the Los Alamos desert.

Chris Janes conveyed an arrogant, cold Heisenberg

Chris Janes and Claudia McKelvey
Chris Janes & Claudia McKelvey

Once again, I like the way that the staging had been arranged in the traverse. The director wanted to create space and I think used it effectively. The movement of the actor around a central point was reminiscent of electrons circulating an atom and I am not sure if that is what David Crook intended but for the most part it worked well. The only time when it didn't work was when the lines were delivered from each point of a triangle. The non-speaking actor 'drew focus' from the speaking actor and it was intrusive. For a while, I just wanted to move the actors completely out of their 'orbit'. I liked the use of the arc, stone garden seats placed at the edge of a central circle - it was simple and effect but I didn't like the diagrammatic representation of an atom and circulating electrons painted on to the floor. It kind of said,' Well this play has got something to do with the atom.'

The lighting and sound effects were excellent and the change in light to suggest a change in time, location or season was used economically and to great effect. The music was very appropriate, enhancing and never intrusive and the costumes were good and appeared historically accurate.

a production .... of a high standard

The most difficult thing in writing this review, I feel, is critiquing the acting. Individually, and collectively, the three actors worked very hard and gave good strong performances. They did well to create distinctive characters from a text that was, at times, no more than a theatrical device that forced each character to take on an additional role of narrator and foil. Ray Newton came across well as the crusty, likeable academic , Niels Bohr; Claudia McKelvey portrayed convincingly the dedicated ,devoted wife Margrethe who typed all of Bohr's manuscripts and entertained his colleagues and friends at their house; and Chris Janes conveyed an arrogant, cold Heisenberg that was, occasionally, perhaps too cold. In spite of my not liking the play, the director tackled successfully a difficult work and staged a production that was clearly of a high standard.

Brian Stewart

Photographs: Steve Beeston

Copenhagen was written by Michael Frayn and directed by David Crook. The production was staged at The Little Theatre in 2004.