When we lived in London, Jason went to see Copenhagen
. Something about the description and the reviews put me off and I didn't go with him. He quite enjoyed it, but even his positive comments didn't sway me. And then Porpentine Players
announced that they would be performing it, with Ron Lacey in the role of Heisenberg, and here's the thing: I would show up to watch Ron Lacey read the phone book. Seriously--I'm convinced he would do it with grace and humility and a restrained sense of humor, finding all the nuances in it and making it a great evening of theatre. And I'm generally a fan of Porpentine and want to support them. I wasn't exactly looking forward to it, especially after reading a negative review that hated the script and didn't love the production, either, but I still wanted to be there.
It was marvelous. Jaw-droppingly, stunningly, amazingly marvelous.
In many ways Copenhagen
reminds me of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
, with its repetitions and re-statements of a central theme, coming at a problem from all angles. That's not its only similarity with Stoppard's work: Frayn is also concerned with the basic unknowability of history--what exactly happened in private conversation, what precisely was the relationship between people, how can we accurately gauge the motivations that lead us from one moment to another, even well-documented moments reported from several perspectives.
The play focuses on a meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1941. In the midst of World War II, the German Heisenberg visits Bohr and his wife and amanuensis, Margrethe, in Occupied Denmark and asks--well, we're never sure precisely what was asked, but it had something to do with the morality of working on the German atomic weapons program. What exactly was asked, what was meant, what was intended, and what was understood forms the backbone of the play, as the three characters--"now we are all dead and no one can be hurt"--argue it back and forth, running through multiple "drafts" of their collective memory.
Physics is the backdrop of the story, the water they are swimming in, the air that they breathe, the meat that they gnaw throughout the script. The program helpfully provides short explanations of a cloud chamber, the two-slit experiment, Heiseberg's Uncertainty Principle and Bohr's Complementarity Principle, all of which have bearing on the theoretical underpinnings of nuclear weapons. I think it's possible to enjoy the play even if you don't understand the physics, but a basic understanding definitely helps the viewer not to get lost in the details.
But the story is, as all stories are, about the people involved. The relationship between Bohr and Heisenberg is beautifully drawn, sketched out from many different angles. They were, in many ways, like father and son, for better and worse, and that relationship is complicated and shaded by the death of two of Bohr's sons, particularly Christian, whose death in a boating accident becomes one of the repeated refrains of the script. Margrethe is the mother--caring, supporting, badgering and chivying the men through to the end. Bohr repeatedly urges Heisenberg to explain his ideas in "plain language," rather than relying solely on mathematics, "so that Margrethe can understand it," but it is clear that Margrethe understands not only the physics, but the physicists, in ways that they cannot understand themselves.
The cast was spectacular. They made these characters breathe and live through incredibly dense material. Floyd Richardson's Bohr is a difficult father, whose frustration erupts through the gentleness of his facade. Ann Carpenter's Margrethe is patient, but merciless. And Ron Lacey's Heisenberg is a creation of surpassing beauty--nuanced, detailed, and specific in ways that surprised and delighted me throughout the show. Director Jon Taie creatively used the space and designed the blocking so that the characters' orbits are constantly shifting around each other, reminding the audience of the particles under discussion and the nuclear forces that bind us together.
It was not a perfect performance. The Nave Gallery space has many limitations--the most distracting one for me was the sound of the projector used to show us images of the scientists and family members mentioned. There were various stumbles over the complex and repetitive lines as the momentum of the conversation sometimes ran faster than the actors could keep up. And while Taie managed the challenge of directing in 3/4 round with more grace than most, there are the inevitable moments when it isn't working for some segment of the audience. As a director there were certainly times I thought how I might have done it differently--that's part of the joy of theatre for me--but overall I was incredibly impressed.
You can read sovay
's similar, but far more poetic review here
, or that negative review
I mentioned, if you're curious. But first, you should buy tickets
to see it this coming weekend, before it closes and you've missed an incredible show.