Theatre in Wales

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At Theatr Clwyd

Clwyd Theatr Cymru- Copenhagen , Emlyn Williams Theatre, Clwyd Theatr Cymru , November 6, 2013
At Theatr Clwyd by Clwyd Theatr Cymru- Copenhagen Fifteen years on is a revealing time for a play script. It reveals what made it popular in the first place. It reveals too whether it is a period piece or may be seen in a new perspective. “Copenhagen” passes the test. It has a reputation as a piece of fierce intellectuality- it is philosopher rather than farceur Frayn. But it is fused with humanity and delivered on stage by director Emma Lucia with a scorching energy.

“Copenhagen” was written in a period in which theatre and physics briefly co-mingled. Stoppard did “Hapgood” and “Arcadia” and Charlotte Jones with “Humble Boy” and Felix her physicist-hero also made the jump from subsidised stage to commercial Shaftesbury Avenue. At one level the attraction is clear. Ambiguity, duality and fractals lend themselves easily as metaphors for dramatic writing; there is plentiful usage in the closing section of “Copenhagen.” Schroedinger’s cat may be conjectural but it is an image that is readily communicable to an audience. The Higgs by comparison is not just elusive in itself but elusively tough to weave into a stage action.

Another aspect of “Copenhagen” reveals itself. Frayn gives to his Niels Bohr a speech of homage to the science of his era. The impersonal Newtonian universe has been re-discovered by the Hahn-Born-Fermi generation as being deeply human. In the quantum world the human observer is herself a participant. There is in “Copenhagen” a sense of the late nineties, now a far-off foreign time. It felt like things really were getting better. With the turn of the century Joe Penhall was dramatizing the scientist as a deeply compromised figure. Science fifteen years on is immeasurably bigger but weaker. Error, falsification, flawed design and statistical bungle are widespread.

But science on stage is only as good as its treatment. Bohr and Heisenberg may agitatedly pace a Danish garden in part as friends, in part as rivals and in part as representatives of opposing powers in wartime. Frayn never allows that urgent ambiguity to drift far away nor do the characters lose the knowledge that eyes and ears are attentive to every word. The death of a child in an accident is a repeated motif. In the middle of high theory Heisenberg describes how his shoes were once lit with burning phosphorus.

Sion Pritchard’s Heisenberg is drenched in tension. He is the early prodigy, a professor at age twenty-seven, already hauled in once to Gestapo headquarters, holding his position in part, or so is his claim, to thwart a committed Party member with a tenth of his scientific ability but ten times the motivation to deliver Germany the atomic bomb. At his arrival his Heisenberg is a calm figure in his round-lensed glasses, his trilby, waistcoat and flannel suit. By the end he is recalling his time in Germany’s Year Zero as just one more wandering figure in a Bosch landscape of smoke and corpses. In a chilling monologue he tells how a chance packet of Lucky Strike cigarettes saves him from a haphazard execution by a last-ditch SS officer. When Heisenberg envisages his country in its potential future ruination Sion Pritchard’s lips twitch uncontrollably. This is total acting.

In its original production Margrethe appeared as a foil, a subsidiary role to the two giants of twentieth century science. Siần Howard’s playing makes her a very different and an equal character. She is a sharp-eyed enquiring presence who knows what makes plutonium. She is the partner-helpmate, the one who has typed version after version of her husband’s journal papers. She knows when the men’s memories are false. Frayn’s theme is uncertainty. He ends with a piece of history that cracks the image of the enemy. Most of the Danish Jewish community, nearly eight thousand in number, slips by night across the Oresund to safety in Sweden. The leak of imminent arrest has been made by a German diplomat.

Simon Armstrong is a volcanic Bohr. Long known as the Pope of theoretical physics he becomes vaguer on his role in the Los Alamos Project. He reduces his own part in it to that of a kind of father-confessor. He is a dynamic, driven presence on stage, who knows by heart the date of every scientific controversy and breakthrough while doubtful of the dates of birth of his children.

Mark Bailey’s design is two-fold. Behind five gauze screens are the comforts of everyday life. A table has a bottle of wine A few silvery trees indicate the pleasure and solace to be had in a simple walk in the woods. Emma Lucia opens the action with Sion Pritchard seated at the piano and playing a few lilting chords. After that he and the other two actors never rest. The front half of the Emlyn Williams is bare, not a chair, not an item of support. The three actors slip upstage, but only momentarily to don or lose a coat or cardigan. The demands on physical stamina and energy are unbroken. The staging itself replicates the inner space of the atom itself, with its chasms of emptiness inhabited by three energy-charged entities.
“Copenhagen” has a lot in it. It is a rare member of the audience who will grasp it all, the details of reactors and the bombardment of Uranium-235. But it is big too, with history and moral responsibility jostling alongside. It is too big to get that honed clarity of the greatest drama. Frayn, like his Bohr, is in love with the sheer excitement of paradox and contradiction. It has points of human truth. A stream of formulae runs across the screens and Heisenberg declares the happiness he experienced in that moment of creativity and discovery.

“Copenhagen” is the kind of theatre for which Theatr Clwyd Cymru is intended. By press night eighty percent of the tickets for the run are already sold.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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