at The Minerva Theatre, Chichester
25th August 2018
“Time and time again I’ve explained it, yet the more I’ve explained the deeper the uncertainty has become.”
Most of Michael Frayn’s plays are based on fact, but the main topic of what was actually said to each other has been surmised by the author. More information has come to light, since the production premiered in 1998, but this version hasn’t been updated to reflect this.
“Copenhagen” is a clever, fictionalised account of the meetings of two scientists who worked on the inventions surrounding atoms and atom bombs between WWI and/during WWII. In the play their spirits, along with Bohr’s wife Margrethe (Patricia Hodge), meet after their deaths.
The drama asks many questions as it examines the mystery of why the German nuclear physicist Werner Heisenberg (Charles Edwards) went to visit his Danish counterpart Niels Bohr (Paul Jesson) in 1941. They worked together before the war and then separated as each had allegiances to different countries. Bohr makes the play re-wind and sends Heisenberg back to the drawing board to produce another draft of events as if he were writing a research paper.
The first meeting takes place in 1941 in which the student tries to find out if his mentor knows what the Allies nuclear capabilities are. During Heisenberg’s visit to the German-occupied city, he lectured and discussed nuclear research, as well as potentially developing nuclear weapons. Heisenberg was one of the key pioneers of quantum mechanics (the behaviour and interactions of energy and matter) but he was also one of Hitler’s nuclear scientists. It is a complex relationship which comes together in the afterlife to understand their friendship and its strains. Science brought them together; they feel like father and son or director and student. Politics divided them, yet as they talk about their past, other tensions, such as competitiveness, come to the fore. Margrethe is ever present and offers her insights into their closeness and discrepancies. Margrethe’s presence is a way of keeping the physics at the audience’s level; with a role which would seem demeaning to us today. As Bohr says, the most complex theorems in science are rendered comprehensible by all “so Margrethe can understand them”. That grate but decided to accept her functional role in the context of the time, considering her like the chorus in a Greek tragedy. Hodge makes the most of her role even when silent; being imperious as she communicates much more by shifting one knee, refolding her hands or swivelling her eyes. She icily reminds us that these are men “who determine which cities shall live and which be destroyed”. If it had been Heisenberg who correctly calculated the correct critical mass, the world would look very different. Continue reading Copenhagen