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.

Like detectives solving a mystery, the three scientists work their way to the realisation that it all came down to one technical point. If Heisenberg had asked a specific question, and Bohr had answered it, the Germans would have had the bomb first, and London might have looked  like Hiroshima. Did Bohr refuse to answer? Did he give a wrong answer?

Heisenberg is, of course, author of the Uncertainty Principle, the scientific axiom that merely looking at how a problem affects the answer you get. Frayn’s characters are very much aware that even agreed-upon memories are no guarantee of truth.

On this travel discourse, Heisenberg explains to the audience that he intends to visit his wife and children one last time. As Heisenberg is already dead, the plot of the play cleverly does not exist in time and space, which allows the character to speak out loud as if to no one.  It’s 1945 now, and World War Two is at its end. Heisenberg’s world has collapsed, and he is filled with guilt and horror at what he sees on his journey to Bavaria. His speech is heavy with questions of responsibility and the morality in science. However, the madness of the War seems to become truly clear to him when he is arrested and labelled a deserter by a Nazi soldier. His papers, self-signed, do not grant him his freedom; instead in a stroke of genius he is able to buy it back for a pack of cigarettes.

Later on in 1962, they discuss their motives and why the Germans lost the war from the scientific point of view.

You have to work hard at a Frayn play. Heisenberg’s career was founded on uncertainty; he made a principle of it, and Michael Frayn’s play is a dramatic example of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in action.  Frayn illustrates and celebrates the complexity and uncertainty of life. And in its consideration of mortality, we learn the Bohrs lost a beloved son in a drowning accident. We also become aware that Heisenberg reveres Bohr as his scientific father, but his speeches suggest a less than comfortable relationship in which he would like an upperhand in scientific achievement anbetraying a jealouys of another German scientist, Erwin Schrödinger.

Charles Edwards delivers Heisenberg’s attempts at self-explication with increasing desperation. He manages a complex personality, both brilliant and arrogant, difficult, ambiguous, defensive and political all at once. Paul Jesson provides his perfect nemesis. Spotlighting helps suggest that, while both scientists may be extraordinary calculating machines, their ideas and memories are still coloured by human feeling.

Peter  Davison’s ambitious, circular bare and simple set of an encasing atom is defined further by Mark Henderson and Michael Lincoln’s lighting, and the actors move about the stage in choreographed patterns, all of which evoke the neutrons and electrons being discussed. What is left is the focus on the spoken word.

Undoubtedly, “Copenhagen” is hard work for an audience but there are glimpses of humanity among all the cold calculations. I have to admit that some of the scientific terms went right over my head. I did nod off a few times in the first half. Yet I smile to myself and say, you can never be sure of everything. Thankfully, there is a handy Venn diagram in the programme notes.  Anyway, it is very intriguing as to why the scientist’s made many of their decisions, and how it affected the war efforts.

What is most memorable is the stunning quality of the acting delivering a bank of scientific discourse. It is also a surprising achievement to see,  dramatised, a forensic account of a historic event framed around a duality and uncertainties of quantum mechanics.