FringeReview UK 2018
The Chichester Minerva revival Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, directed by Michael Blakemore features the same Peter J Davison platform set, Mark Henderson’s lighting shadows outdoors lintels and doubts. Nina Dunn’s video projects a heaving sea and a life buoy. Carolyn Downing’s sound confines itself to bells, then the whistle and crump of something else.
Patricia Hodge, Paul Jesson and Charles Edwards circle each other or move their silver-painted wooden chairs around Peter J Davison’s platform set of Copenhagen – the same he designed for the 1998 premiere of Michael Frayn’s masterwork.
It’s swept round with an atomic circle design incised by many others in an interlocked pattern. They’re subtly differentiated like pastel clouds or indeed a cloud chamber shot through with electrons. There’s a touch of Huit-Clos about this production, and indeed as the trio tell us they’re all dead, but still want to work out a wrinkle of time.
Now there’s a smooth expanse of it. But since the protagonists frequently drop back on earth, the wrinkles threaten to crumple eternity. Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle meets Niels Bohr’s Complementarity in a thrilling theatrics of politics, science and ruptured friendship. Frayn incarnates ideas and crash-lands them on their creators’ lives.
Twenty years after Frayn’s Copenhagen, the uncertainties multiply, as he wryly lays out in his introduction to this Chichester Minerva revival directed by Michael Blakemore. In this now classic triangle of three people remembering a crucial meeting in German-occupied Denmark in September 1941, the newly revealed histories leave us close to what Frayn divined: and he’s slightly revised the text but not rewritten it.
For instance there wasn’t just one meeting; only the aftermath made it acrimonious. Heisenberg’s letters to his wife reveal him as more tortured, Bohr’s furiously-revised letter of 1957 keeps not being sent. Frayn needn’t worry; with a few tweaks he’s laid out this interrogation of ourselves for good.
Mark Henderson’s lighting shadows outdoors lintels and doubts. Perhaps the only seeming solid is the most effervescent. The set also comprises the Minerva space’s upstage door, the navy-dark wall also incised with circuitry as it were. It’s where Nina Dunn’s video projects a heaving sea and a life buoy: a traumatic memory of a boy who couldn’t reach it when flung to him. Carolyn Downing’s sound confines itself to bells, then the whistle and crump of something else altogether at the climax, to the one time the video changes.
It’s rare; for the most part it’s three people circling three chairs. Frayn’s dialogue is part monologue addressed outwards, part engagement. Part uncertainty where if you know velocity you don’t know position or visa-versa; part the quantum of the same moment seen again and again as happens in the second act.
From the start Heisenberg’s Goldener Oktober memory is contradicted. It was September, there were no crunching leaves. The lost son the substitute for the one drowned, has returned, older than the glorious and fractious three years he and Bohr spent living with each other altering the envelope of the universe by punching holes in it. Table tennis, skiing and cards start off the reactive chain of metaphors.
Why has Heisenberg come, at no small risk, bending Nazi officials’ ears? To ask Bohr if it’s possible to contemplate a chain reaction with Uranium 235, or indeed let out – with suicidal audacity – the secret that the Nazis are trying to? Bohr passes this on to the allies.
Bohr believes Heisenberg’s ferreting for the Nazi nuclear team who still regard Bohr as – the pope, Margrethe suggests, and Heisenberg wanted absolution. The way Heisenberg iterates the four assumptions he claims Bohr makes is like watching an electron diffusion turn into a vapour trail of crimes. Again Frayn’s text and Jesson and Edwards circle the same key words.
Heisenberg’s also desperate to prevent a rival taking over. And with the allies progress, what to decide for Germany or the scientists intervening for humanity? ‘Mathematics is sense, that’s what sense is.’ But it has to be explained to Margrethe.
Edwards with Richard II, Waste and the anchor for Absolute Hell behind him, projects wounded majesty like few others. It’s an existential wound, feelings festering. He’s superb as Heisenberg, shadowed with doubt (Hamlet’s Elsinore is referenced) and arrogance, making blissfully insensitive suggestions, like inviting Bohr to use his Norwegian hut. Now most of Europe’s conquered Bohr reflects it should be quite easy.
The earliest meeting between the two was a conflict: Heisenberg’s brilliant mathematics challenges Bohr openly. The conflictual competitive environment with other scientists – notably Schrodinger with his dangerous wave theory and sealed cat – percolate though the rest of the play. This is about more than 1941.
Jesson’s grainier reach as avuncular father confessor to all theoretical physicists (the chair to Heisenberg’s managing director, the latter opines) suddenly explodes each time we encounter the fateful moment when Heisenberg asks something Bohr deems unforgiveable, out on their un-bugged walk. He occasionally explodes after simmering, jets off into a furious shudder, shrugs into sudden weariness. The overly rapid delivery some saw on the production’s opening has flow now, and Jesson projects with authority.
Hodge’s watchful Margrethe, never trusting Heisenberg, proves incisive at crucial stages. Hodge nails Margrethe’s sudden shifts and shiftiness; her unerring psychology delivers judgement on Heisenberg. ‘Your talent is for skiing too fast for anyone to know who you are, like one of your particles.’ She sees further too, to total annihilation. ‘Even the ghosts will die.’
Frayn’s conclusion is the protagonist is the one who can’t observe the truth. Hodge’s Margrethe again nails the paradox: Heisenberg doesn’t know why he came. ‘You have a tendency to make everything personal’ Bohr chides her. ‘Because everything is… confusion rage and jealousy and tears’ she ripostes providing each with very personal motives. Her conclusions are both funny and devastating.
And the irony, that Heisenberg’s friends in the German embassy tipped off when the Nazis intended to deport Jewish Danes means there’s an uneasy equivalence. The morally compromised Heisenberg never hurt anyone, even the deserter he released in 1918. Bohr, morally unimpeachable, designed triggers for Los Alamos. Each attempt at redemptive solution – ‘a final draft’ – is rendingly dragged across conscience. Each shifts our view of the foregoing.
A superb revival that can hardly be bettered, it’s more than enough to persuade us of Copenhagen’s classic status, not least because it’s still so timely, so urgent, and glints with a different facet every time.