“Questions? Observations? Misgivings?”
Forming the final entry in her debut season as Donmar AD, The Physicists continues Josie Rourke’s realignment of the Donmar’s artistic policy. And as with Making Noise Quietly, it is into previously unknown areas for me as this play was written in 1962 by Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt (although Rourke commissioned a new version here from Jack Thorne), someone I’ve never previously heard of. Wikipedia informs me he was a proponent of epic theatre but what it translates to here is a tragi-comedy with a farcical first half, which darkens to a more serious second which reflects its Cold War origins.
It starts off like the punchline to a joke: three nuclear physicists are in a mental asylum. Herbert Georg Beutler, who believes he is Sir Isaac Newton, Ernst Heinrich Ernesti who is convinced he is Albert Einstein and Johann Wilhelm Möbius who has regular visitations from King Solomon. It emerges that the first two have murdered their nurses and that Möbius seems set to follow suit, but as the reasons for their actions slowly become apparent, it is clear that something greater is at stake here.
Rourke marshals her cast well: John Heffernan continues his rise to becoming one of our finest leading men with a fine performance as the genuinely troubled Möbius, Sophie Thompson is barely recognisable as the hunchbacked psychiatrist Mathilde von Zahnd (surely some relation to Agatha Trunchbull…!) whose machinations keep the asylum running, and John Ramm and Miranda Raison each do well in supporting roles though it is a shame Raison doesn’t have more to do as she is fantastic. As the other two madmen, Justin Salinger and Paul Bhattacharjee have less impact, but as the tale unfolds it soon becomes clear why.
It then therefore becomes a shame that the shift in the play comes so late with the discovery of what is really happening as the debate turns to matters of the responsibility that accompanies significant scientific revelation. This crucial moment is long-delayed and so when it comes, its intellectual impact is muted by the lack of room to expound fully, dramatically it forces a change of mood that Rourke cannot quite balance, and ultimately there’s no disguising the fact that its central issue about the nuclear threat is one which just does not carry the same impact as it would have done whilst the Cold War still raged.
Rob Jones’ set, dominated by multiple doors, looks strikingly elegant and absolutely fit for purpose. And Rourke is remarkably even-handed with her eye candy treats, Raison looks smokingly hot in her nurse’s outfit but later we are treated to two strapping young men in the tightest trousers known to mankind – something for everyone! Ultimately, I think I was a little disappointed by the unevenness of the play, although I was definitely in the minority in our group but if nothing else, it goes to show that under Rourke, the Donmar looks set to be somewhere rather unpredictable and I have to say I kinda like that idea.