Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn
Minerva Theatre, Chichester
Ten years have passed since Michael Frayn’s cerebral play ‘Copenhagen’ made its debut at the National Theatre. This marks the playwright’s take on a famous meeting in 1941 between two of the world’s leading physicists, Werner Heisenberg from Germany and his one-time mentor Nils Bohr from Denmark. “Exactly what happened, and what Heisenberg’s intentions were, have been endlessly disputed,” Frayn notes in the programme.
The third protagonist is Bohr’s wife Margarethe (Patricia Hodge), a vital witness to events as her husband’s secretary who had to transcribe his many drafts and re-drafts when he was preparing a scientific paper. The three of them are all dead and, from their heavenly vantage point, they set out to offer various scenarios of what was said and what happened at the meeting, with some ‘live’ reconstructions.
Heisenberg (Charles Edwards) was half-Jewish but he was roundly condemned after the War because of his perceived Nazi sympathies, and because of the suspicion that his visit to Copenhagen was to wheedle information out of Bohr about making an atomic bomb and to discover how far the Allies had got with their research. But that is shrouded in mystery in Frayn’s telling of the story, as he lets Heisenberg tell his side of things, for which he was criticized when the play went to New York.
In Frayn’s account the meeting between the two men starts amiably (although Margarethe is more suspicious), but quickly provokes a rupture. Bohr (Paul Jesson) was Heisenberg’s mentor when they worked together between 1924 and 1927 and is referred to as ‘the Pope’ by his German protégé. “If I am the Pope, then Einstein is God,” jokes Bohr.
It is a remarkable coup de theatre that Frayn’s dialogue fizzes with intensity and interest in long discussions over electrons, photons, neutrons, Quantum mechanics, fission, reactors and chain reactions. Heisenberg never says openly what he wants, but the dark shadow of the war hangs over their discussions, and he hints that his role has been to hide the weapons of mass destruction from the Nazis. At the same time he expresses his love of Germany where he and his children have been born and raised and have prospered.
His Danish hosts try hard to get Heisenberg to say what he wants but his line remains that producing an atomic bomb would have been too difficult. And he insists that his goal is to build nuclear reactors to create energy. The two men often return to discussions of mutual sporting pursuits in sailing, table tennis and skiing. Heisenberg was proud to be a fast and fearless skier and based his scientific methodology on his fast instincts, while Bohr was more careful. Sailing brings bad memories for the Bohrs as their son was drowned at sea.
The discussions take place against a bare set with only three wooden chairs, but the stage is filled with fine words, and subtle activity as the two men pace round in memory of their frequent walks. The dialogue never flags and Margarethe often raises a laugh as she gently (or firmly) contradicts the two men for their false memories and scientific contradictions. Frayn explores dilemmas for scientists when their nations are at war and lucidly explains the scientific challenges of producing a nuclear weapon. If Germany had won the race to create the Atom bomb, who knows what would have happened.
The actors maintain a fast and furious pace and, for me, the diction was clear (although I heard one theatregoer complain that Jesson had mumbled in the first act). There is crisp direction from Michael Blakemore whose long experience has included directing ‘Noises Off’, Frayn’s famous and enduring farce, and the original production of ‘Copenhagen’ during his time at the National Theatre. There is theoretical and actual explosive material in this production which merits five stars.