Thursday, 5 March 2009

Copenhagen, PMD Productions, March 5, 2009 **1/2

By Michael Frayn, Produced by PMD Productions
Chapel Off Chapel,  March 5 to 28, 2009
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on March , 2009
Stars: **1/2

Two theoretical physicists in a social situation will discuss particle physics, just as two parents at a barbecue talk about their children. When Michael Frayn wrote about the 1941 meeting in Copenhagen between Danish physicist, Niels Bohr (Matthew Kenny), and his German former protégée, Werner Heisenberg (Tristan Lutze), he had no choice but to make Quantum Physics the main topic.

Frayn’s dialogue is built around the brain-addling notions of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and Bohr’s theory of Complementarity. This play requires an attentive audience and actors willing to get their tongues around the concepts. It demands intellectual acuity to process elaborate explanations of physics, historical and political facts and the philosophical debate.

We learn plenty about the behaviour of particles, nuclear fission and nuclear research during World War Two. Frayn’s conceit is to replay Heisenberg’s visit to Bohr in an attempt to understand why the younger scientist made this trip to occupied Denmark to visit Bohr, a Jew, when he, Heisenberg, was working for the Reich.

After the visit, each gave differing accounts of their discussions. We know they went for a walk after Margrethe Bohr (Andrea McCannon) cooked dinner and Heisenberg departed soon after. Their friendship was over.

Frayn depicts four consecutive versions of the meeting. The first is dry, superficial and uninspiring. The characters are uncomfortable and their discussion awkward. Each ensuing replay of the evening challenges the characters to reveal their motivations, justifications and complicated secret attitudes about their shared history. They behave like the particles they study: unpredictable, illusive and framed in Uncertainty and Complementarity.

The performances in Paul Knox’s production are competent. Kenny is aptly shambling and old-fashioned as Niels, Lutze is boyish, earnest and needy as Heisenberg and, as Margrethe, McCannon is brittle and polite. Copenhagen is a difficult play to make emotionally engaging, but, by the final scene, the actors are comfortable with the more personal and volatile interactions of the characters.

There is no escaping the fact that the play is didactic, the dialogue informational and the characters mouthpieces for political, philosophical and scientific views. However it is fascinating, even compelling, to see their struggle to come to terms with their clash of opinions, their egotistical head butting and their childish need to be right. Only Margrethe, the outsider, finally has a credible explanation of their behaviour that night.

By Kate Herbert

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