“The more I’ve explained, the deeper the uncertainty becomes”
Last year it was the turn of David Hare to get a retrospective season in Sheffield celebrating his work, but 2012 sees the Crucible et al honouring Michael Frayn. The Old Vic’s revival of his farce Noises Off has been an immense success in London, but Frayn is also known for his weightier fare and that is what this season is focusing on, featuring productions of Benefactors, Democracy, and Copenhagen – in a remarkably short run that I was lucky to make.
The play is a three-hander that is centred around the 1941 real-life meeting between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr and his wife at their home in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen. Both were scientists involved in the field of nuclear physics but the content of their meeting remains a mystery, though the implication is that Heisenberg’s development of nuclear weapons for the Nazi regime may have been high on the agenda. Frayn expands and expounds on this in the most esoteric and complex of ways, folding in huge issues of philosophy, morality, history, memory, love and quantum physics.
The characters meet in the afterlife, and each recount the meeting in a slightly different way, discussing and debating all the while and freewheeling in a non-linear structure to top things off. But in a similiar way to Stoppard in Arcadia, Frayn has a real gift for wrapping these complex topics in a most accessible form. Here the character of Margrethe, Bohr’s wife, is used as a bridge between the scientists and the audience, ensuring that we get a layman’s explanation and thus have a chance at beginning to understand just what is going on.
That’s not to say that it is made easy. This is hard-going from the outset, layers upon layers of dense talk and huge amounts of knowledge and research imparted. And its form is often also challenging too, as it repeatedly shifts from past to present, first person to third, breaking the fourth wall and more, with lightning speed. It is testament to the skill of the actors, Henry Goodman as Bohr, Geoffrey Streatfeild as Heisenberg and Barbara Flynn as Margrethe, that they can even cope with this, never mind make it appealing to watch. I love Barbara Flynn’s natural grace and her easy persona here is brilliant and Streatfeild’s angst-ridden intensity fits in well against the more mature, though still tortured, Goodman.
Perhaps Copenhagen is one to admire more than one to love, I feel a little too much of it passed over my head to say that I truly loved it, and I’m not sure that the Lyceum was the best stage for it – it craved a more intimate setting in my opinion. But director David Grindley cleverly kept things very simple and so I was glad to have made the effort in the end to see something so technically demanding and well accomplished in its execution.