Sunday 26 April 2009

Copenhagen at the Lyceum

Copenhagen is probably one of my favourite plays. By Michael Frayn, of Noises Off fame, it is an interesting exercise in speculation, dealing with a curiosity in the history of atomic physics. The play concerns the relationship between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, two pioneers of quantum mechanics, whose time together in Copenhagen in the mid to late twenties produced many important breakthroughs, such as the uncertainty principle and complementarity. Heisenberg then returned to Germany. However, in 1941 he made a visit to Copenhagen, then under Nazi occupation, and met briefly with Bohr. There appears to have been a serious row and their friendship never recovered, but exactly what was said has been lost to history. The play takes place in a sort of afterlife as Heisenberg, Bohr and his wife Margrethe try to pick apart the events.

They work through the meeting some four times, coming ever closer to the truth and, yet, in one of the many ways the physics is reflected in the work, oddly further away at the same time. Did he come because he wanted Bohr to spot an error he had made in his calculations, did he want to avert the development of nuclear weapons or did he want to ensure Hitler got the bomb first? We will never know, and it doesn't really matter, which is just as well, for while the play speculates, it never really finds an answer.

As someone who's studied this subject a little, it's of particularly interest. Often they describe the history of time, which was something of a gold rush of discovery, and wonderfully exciting for it. That said, I don't think such knowledge is a prerequisite. The narrative structure jumps around as they discuss 1941, the 20s, later times and the years between, flitting from one to the other and back again. Some will find this difficult, but I find it effective.

So, how does the Lyceum handle it? Well, first off a word about the production design of Neil Murray, which strikes immediately as one enters the theatre. To my mind, the play is so laced with drama, and so abstractly set, that it would likely be best served by just a couple of simple chairs, the rest left to the actors. Murray's strange white pillars, and even stranger immovable chairs with papers and busts of Beethoven (well, it could have been someone else) stacked underneath them, just looks weird and don't really help the drama. Then, at the end, to underscore, spoiler warning, that the world has not been destroyed in nuclear holocaust, we get a silly rotating projection of the earth. This is the patronisingly underlining passages from the text with a crayon school of production design.

The success of such a play hinges on the performance of the three leads, and hence explains why this production is mixed. Owen Oakeshott is solid as Heisenberg, and one sympathises with the difficult position he found himself in and his attempts to justify his actions (much as one sympathises with the post-war treatment of Furtwangler). Tom Mannion's Bohr is more problematic. Time and again the play describes the hierarchy of atomic physics in terms of the catholic church - Einstein is God while Bohr is the pope. In particular, it tells of a journey Bohr took in terms of almost a papal procession. Sadly, Mannion's performance largely lacks this sense of authority and gravitas. He also trips over his technical language a little too often. Lastly there is Sally Edwards' Margrethe. This is a difficult role as the character is pretty unsympathetic and while she isn't bad, per se, I think more winning actor is required.

I can't help but feel that a number of these problems are down to weak direction on the part of Tony Cownie, I'm not at all convinced he has a terribly strong conception of the play.

As with the production, I find the lighting design a little over-active. Sound is even more problematic: again and again we get a doorbell sound; fair enough, except, on stage, Heisenberg never actually makes any accompanying gesture. Worse yet is the repeated cry of Bohr's drowning son as he reaches for the buoy, an event the play repeatedly touches on. I can't recall if this was a sound effect the last time I saw the play. Annoyingly, I can't check this in the text (I don't own a copy and when, in writing this review, I tried to buy an ebook version, I found that none exists; stupid publishers strike again, apparently). However, it just feels very tacky indeed. If it is not in the text, there is no sane reason for adding it. If it is, it would be better removed. I also query if the Beethoven snatches are scripted; I don't think they add much either.

Still, if the play is new to you, it is definitely worth seeing. If not, it's a tougher call, since this is a flawed productions.

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