City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Review: Copenhagen

By Vivien Devlin - Posted on 20 April 2009

Show Details
Royal Lyceum Company
Tony Cownie (Director), Neil Murray (designer), Malcolm Rippeth (lighting)
Tom Mannion (Bohr), Owen Oakeshott (Heisenberg), Sally Edwards (Margrethe)
Running time: 

This multi award winning play (1998) takes the form of a conversation, based upon real historical figures and actual events, where three people meet once again as ghosts in some kind of afterlife.  The black box stage has a simple set of five chairs and a Chekhovian-style woodland of tall, thin trees, scrawled with text. Without scene breaks, the free flowing narrative (the interval merely pauses the action) continues as seamless dialogue.

The facts behind the story are thus: in 1924, Werner Heisenberg, a brilliant young German scientist, goes to Copenhagen to live and work as a collaborator with the eminent physicist, Neils Bohr, to explore the nature of heat and light on the theory of quantum physics.

By 1941 Denmark is occupied by Nazi Germany, while Heisenberg is in Germany involved in developing atomic energy, allegedly for practical purpose. Despite the political crisis across Europe, he decides to return to Copenhagen to see Bohr. At his home and during long walks in the park, they have a serious conversation which remains a strange, scientific mystery to this day.

The leading question is posed by Bohr's wife, Margrethe at the start of the play: "Why did he come to Copenhagen ?" to which Heisenberg responds : "No one understands my trip to Copenhagen. Time and time again I've explained it. To Bohr himself, and Margrethe. To interrogators and intelligence officers, to journalists and historians. The more I've explained, the deeper the uncertainty has become. Well, I shall be happy to make one more attempt."

A sense of period is simply created through brown, double-breasted suits, fedora hats, raincoats, Margrethe's neat fitted tweed skirt, jacket and permed hair.  The dialogue is positively electric, listing names, dates and places within the scientists' heated debate on the principles of quantum physics, nuclear fission and Schrödinger's cat experiment. The obscure, academic language - exhilarating, challenging, compelling - is pure poetry; you don't need a physics degree to understand the profound questions it raises about human intellect, motive and morality.

As Bohr, Tom Mannion, tall and imposing with craggy boxer's facial features, prowls the stage, moving from quiet moments of contemplation to a mood of anger and frustration like a baited bear. The discussion is played out like a tennis match with Margrethe - performed with subtle, penetrating insight by Sally Edwards -  as the watchful umpire, occasionally interjecting her point of view on the events and their relationship with Heisenberg. She recalls him as a clever student, with the aim to take and use Bohr's knowledge.

To Bohr, their nurturing, caring relationship was like father and son. They relive that meeting and dinner at the Bohr's house in 1941, and reminisce the good times during the 1920s, of skiing trips, music, playing poker with mathematical calculations, train journeys, walks and talks. Their life and work is imbued with the pure excitement of scientific enquiry and the joy of discovery.

The heart of their conversation is sharing their personal passion for physics which appears to be far removed from politics or war. It is not revealed if Heisenberg is a Nazi sympathiser but in a beautiful soliloquy, (performed by Owen Oakeshott with the most moving, heartfelt emotion) describes his proud, life long love of Germany. But how far would he go to protect his Fatherland? His dilemma as a scientist, who has the intellect and ambition to create a weapon of mass destruction, is at the heart of the debate. Whatever Heisenberg did or did not envisage with regard to nuclear fission energy, Hitler's Germany did not develop the atomic bomb.

As Michael Frayn brilliantly dramatises, through argument and debate, through their mutual feelings of friendship and trust, something may have occurred during that crucial meeting in 1941 which would seal the outcome of World War II.

All in all, this new production of Copenhagen shows a uniquely constructed, riveting, intelligent play, performed with focus, style and wit, complemented by the clarity and swift, smooth pace of Tony Cownie's direction.

Runs 17th April to 9th May, 2009