COPENHAGEN, Michael Frayn’s still astonishing 1998 three-hander about physics, philosophy, mathematics, ethics, common sense and human interpretation, is delighting audiences at Bath again, en route to London in these uncertain days for live performance.
Danish Niels Bohr, Jewish on his mother’s side, was just 16 years older than his young German student Werner Heisenberg when their famous collaborations started. After a golden era of discoveries, Heisenberg returned to Leipzig to become his county’s youngest professor. Then came the war.
In 1941, Heisenberg made an unexpected visit to Niels and his wife Margrethe, in by-then occupied Denmark. The reason for the visit, long questioned and debated by both the scientific and political communities, is the basis of the play. Set sometime after 1984, by which time all three were dead, Frayn’s play allows the trio to rehearse the details of their meeting, in an effort to convince themselves – and each other – of the purpose and outcome of the encounter.
Densely scripted, passionately argued and defensively dissected, Emma Howlett’s spare production challenges its audience to follow not only complex scientific and ethical arguments and religious and patriotic fervour, but the fluctuating moods and allegiances of the characters.
Patrician Bohr (Malcolm Sinclair), wants to remember welcoming his old protege but instead remembers his anger that a German might betray a pacifist pact. Heisenberg (Philip Arditti) wants to remember risking the ire of his superiors by coming to warn his old teacher. Margrethe (Haydn Gwynne) has a more measured approach, recalling the reality of a relationship that has taken on mythical qualities with the passage of time.
After three runs-through, do they reach a satisfactory conclusion?
Frayn’s absorbing play, compellingly performed, lets the audience do the work and this incisive production brings a theatre-starved audience back to the full realisation of just what live performance can do.
It’s on until 26th June in Bath. Tickets are scarce, so get one if you can.
Photographs by Nobby Clark