Copenhagen 8 -12 October 2013
By Michael Frayn
Directed By Lyn Wainwright
Lyn Wainwright’s directorial debut was a master class in meticulous preparation.
The choice of play wasn’t obvious. As Lyn herself said, two dead physicists arguing hardly sounds like a ‘must-see’ night at the theatre. More promisingly, however, it was written by highly respected author and playwright Michael Frayn. He is perhaps best known for his acclaimed farce Noises Off, but anyone expecting something similar was in for a shock.
Copenhagen is about a real-life meeting in 1941 between the Danish Nobel Prize winning physicist, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, his German counterpart, at Bohr’s home in occupied Denmark. The action centres on the question “why did he come to Copenhagen?” asked by Bohr’s wife Margrethe at the opening of the play. The spirits of the two men and Margrethe examine and re-examine the events of that meeting, verbally and at one point physically orbiting each other, colliding , moving apart, coming back again, as they interact, speak separately then returning to the group. There is no clear account of what actually happened at that meeting, but it ended with the former friends and colleagues parting on bad terms. Frayn offers several theories but does not attempt an answer, leaving us in a state of uncertainty. Heisenberg’s famous “uncertainty” principle is indeed one of the key themes, applied to the uncertainty of human memory and of our understanding of each other’s behaviour, as it becomes clear they did not see or recollect those events in the same way.
As the two scientists talk they go back over their work on quantum physics. Their discussions show just how much preparation Frayn put into his work, both the technical content and the style of speech, using words he claimed were “entirely their own”, based on his research of their memoirs.
For actors, this is a very demanding piece, with only three parts and a lot of complicated, interwoven dialogue. The rehearsal process must have been rigorous, judging by how smoothly the dialogue flowed. We were treated to three outstanding performances. When David Steen, as an avuncular Niels Bohr, and Chris Jones, the more energetic and impatient Werner Heisenberg, discussed science together, you could really believe this was two scientists talking. I envied them their intellectual prowess and the stimulation they found in their conversations with each other. And because that was so convincing I was deeply saddened by the end of that friendship and extraordinary collaboration. Anna Holmen gave us a beautifully judged portrayal of Margrethe, calmly but fiercely protective of her husband and suspicious of Heisenberg. She anchors the whole piece, as observer to the debates and as the non-scientist, interpreting the theories in layman’s terms. All three moved very naturally around the set, marking the changes in time by adjusting the position of their three chairs – the only furniture – with nonchalant ease. (I wonder how many rehearsals that took?)
A lot more than just brilliant acting went into making this a stand-out production however. The lighting was carefully planned – and skilfully executed – to suit the changing mood and tempo of the piece, and the music added a special touch. That too was carefully researched, including a Carl Nielsen piece written to celebrate the reunification of Southern Jutland with Denmark in 1921.
The set was deceptively simple with a beautiful pair of “French” windows with a hint of a wrought iron balcony behind to suggest the interior of a house. But what really made it was the surprisingly tasteful atom-like design painted on the floor. Sadly that may have already disappeared by the time you read this, but I hope it is preserved photographically. At the start and in the interval another image of an atom was projected onto the walls, further underlining a key theme.
Scattered around the set were dried autumn leaves, suggesting not only the time of year the play was set in but the idea that these ghosts were revisiting a home that may by now be derelict. Not even the leaves were left to chance – they were collected a year ago, because they were dry, just in case this year’s autumn leaves got wet.
The programme too had been carefully planned, and included a guide to the research that led to the creation of the atomic bomb, each stage represented as part of an atom. The same images were used as a slide show screened at the beginning and during the interval. All highly educational!
Last but not least are the costumes and make-up. Both gentlemen had suits befitting their time, age and status while Anna/Margrethe wore a simple, period dress and shoes. She was also very well made up to look convincingly aged.
Lyn, her cast and crew all thoroughly deserved the heartfelt applause at the end of this perfectly crafted production.