Stage Door Review 2019


Monday, April 15, 2019


by Michael Frayn, directed by Katrina Darychuk

Soulpepper Theatre Company, Young Centre, Toronto

April 12-May 4, 2019

Heisenberg: “Before we can glimpse who or what we are, we’re gone and laid to dust”

This is the third production of Copenhagen that I’ve seen including the West End transfer of the original production. Each time the play has seemed to be less about science and more about what it is to be a human being. Frayn does not talk down to the audience. He expects that it will want to know how a nuclear reactor works and how the energy that reactor can make for people’s good can also be used for their destruction. A first-time audience may feel inundated with the sheer volume of dates, names and scientific terminology that Frayn has his characters use in their discussions. But, while all that material grounds the play in a specific historical reality, Frayn equally frames his play as a debate about the moral questions scientists face when they discover a process that can have terrifying consequences. Focus on the human element of the story in Copenhagen as do director Katrina Darychuk and her fine cast and you will see that Frayn’s play is a gripping exploration of the profound dilemmas that scientists and governments still face.

Copenhagen is set in a place somewhere beyond space and time. We hear very early on that the three characters we see have long been dead. They are the Danish atomic physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962), his wife Margrethe (1890-1984) and the German theoretic physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901-76). Their spirits are still debating the same questions: “Why in 1941 did the German Heisenberg travel all the way from Leipzig where he taught to Copenhagen in Nazi-occupied Denmark to speak with his friend and former mentor Bohr and what did he say that in just a few minutes caused an unbridgeable rift between them?” 

Heisenberg, was one of the founders of the field of quantum mechanics, but he is best known for formulating what is called the “uncertainty principle”. This is the notion that there is a fundamental limit to how precisely pairs of physical properties of a particle can be known. The more precisely a particle’s position is know, the less precisely its velocity can be known. From the very first Heisenberg’s formulation this idea has been confused with what is known as the “observer effect”. This is the notion that simply observing a phenomenon changes the phenomenon being observed. 

Frayn structures Copenhagen broadly making use of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle using both interpretations. The three spirits – Bohr (Diego Matamoros), Margrethe (Kyra Harper) and Heisenberg (Kawa Ada) – enact three “drafts” as they call it of what happened during the 10-minute conversation between Heisenberg and Bohn in Copenhagen in 1941 that so altered the relationship between the two men that they didn’t speak again until 1947. Heisenberg asked Bohr one question and remembers exactly the words he used, but, as we see, what he intended by it and how Bohr understood the question are subject to three very different interpretations. It is possible Bohr misunderstood Heisenberg’s intention or that Bohr understood Heisenberg’s intention all too well or that Heisenberg’s question was really meant as a warning. The more clearly one of the two physicists remembers what happened the less we credit the other’s memory. 

As a result of the Copenhagen meeting Heisenberg took an action that also has three possible interpretations. Heisenberg was asked if nuclear fission which creates energy in a nuclear reactor could also be used to create a weapon. Heisenberg reported that it could not and thus prevented Germany from developing the atomic bomb before the Americans did. The question, however, is did Heisenberg actually do the calculation necessary that would show it was possible and then lied about it, did he deliberately not do the calculation because he knew the outcome or did he do the calculation and come up with the incorrect answer. Thus, was Heisenberg actively a hero in withholding information or simply inept?

The huge irony of the situation between Bohr and Heisenberg is that Heisenberg was condemned for being a Jew who stayed in Nazi Germany and worked on nuclear fission while Bohr left the war with a clear moral record. In reality, since Heisenberg prevented Germany from making an atomic bomb, Heisenberg killed nobody, whereas Bohr, who went to the US and made crucial calculations at Los Alamos, helped make the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Heroism and guilt thus depend on who is judging the event and why.

The production has an excellent cast, easily equal to the that in the previous two productions I have seen. The key to a good production of Copenhagen is that all three actors must seem to understand thoroughly the science they are speaking about or they will not be able to make an audience understand it. Here all three do give the impression of a strong knowledge of the science. The presence of Margrethe, who is our representative on stage, insures that Bohr and Heisenberg do not express themselves in abstruse scientific jargon but force themselves to speak, as they say, “so Margarethe will understand”. Margarethe, who typed all of Bohr’s papers, said she needed to understand what they were about in plain language so that she could more effectively type her copy.

Frayn also gives each actor a double function. Just as the attributes of an atomic particle are paired, each is both a character and a narrator. Margarethe is the principal narrator, but the two men also narrate the events they speak of as well as act them out. All three actors in this production make the transition from one function to the other completely effortless.

Diego Matamoros gives Bohr a lovable crustiness and brusque manner. We sometimes believe his Bohr only feigns forgetting what happened. Yet, beneath this gruff exterior, Matamoros shows us that Bohr conceals his emotions. Bohr has still not recovered from the death by drowning of his son Christian and still wonders if he could have saved him or if trying to save him would have resulted in both their deaths.

Kawa Ada is an eloquent Heisenberg. Unlike Matamoros’ Bohr, Ada shows us that Heisenberg is anxious and perturbed despite his every effort to appear calm. Our opinion of Heisenberg shifts radically during the course of the action the more we realize what peril he is in and how difficult the moral dilemma is that he faces. Ada plays this as a slow simmer that eventually comes to the boil.

Kyra Harper serves as the bridge between us and the play in more ways than one. Margrethe is the chief narrator of the the three and she is the one who makes the wittiest comments on the action. Harper shows that she is also the most rational and reserved of the three, and her sit-back-and-assess attitude is exactly the attitude that we the audience are asked to adopt. 

The prime flaw of the production is the awkward set designed by the normally insightful Lorenzo Savoini. The raised playing area has a large hole in the centre of it that makes the play’s blocking always look contrived. What this hole is meant to symbolize is unclear. The only time anyone looks into it is when Bohr gazes into it as the water in which his son drowned. Later, a projection onto the floor makes it the ground from which a mushroom cloud grows. We thus could think that the hole represents death or the menace of an atomic weapon that Heisenberg tries to avoid and that Bohr contributed to. On the other hand, Darychuk has both Bohr and Heisenberg at different times (but not Margarethe) sit on its edge and dangle their feet into it as it if meant nothing but relaxation. In the original production, Michael Blakemore had the three actors circling each other within a circle on the floor as if they were nuclear particles, a point that exists in the text. The huge hole makes any kind of interaction like this impossible. 

Savoini also has a huge mirror positioned on the back wall angled in Act 1 so that the audience can see itself in it. This recreates the effect of the world premiere production where part of the audience could sit on the stage as if they were a tribunal to create the impression that we the audience were judging these spirits of the past and what they did.

Unfortunately, this idea is destroyed in Act 2, when Darychuk has the top of the mirror drop down to a greater angle so that it shows us only the players on stage. What exactly does the mirror’s angle mean in Act 1 and its change in Act 2. It might make sense if there were a third position since the play presents three version of the Bohr-Heisenberg encounter, but there is only one change in the mirror’s position. This is already a complex enough play without design and directorial decisions making it less clear.   

Copenhagen demands intense concentration from its audience and an ability to remember key facts, both abilities that seem to be on the wane in modern life. Nevertheless, the real point of all the data Frayn presents is to reveal the ethical and personal questions that arise when trying to process it. We do this in everyday life, but for the characters in the play the fate of nations and of hundreds of thousands of lives depend on their decisions. 

Besides this, as expressed in Frayn’s elegiac epilogue to the action, the enormous accumulation of data that Bohr, Heisenberg and Margrethe muster still does not answer their fundamental question. Thus the play that seems to be about so many facts is actually about how humankind manages to survive when so much about the world will remain forever unknowable. As Bohr says, “Before we can lay our hands on anything, our life’s over”. 

If we can see the ethical and emotional content of the play beneath its very clear explanation of nuclear physics, something the present cast emphasizes, we are drawn into the thrill and danger of what living with such powerful knowledge must be like as well as the moral questions of what people should do when they acquire such knowledge. Although the physical production of this Copenhagen is unhelpful, you do owe it to yourself to see or re-see what is probably the greatest play every written about the first time when humankind realized it could completely destroy itself.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Diego Matamoros as Niels Bohr, Kawa Ada as werner Heisenberg, and Kyra Harper as Margrethe Bohr; Diego Matamoros and Kawa Ada; Diego Matamoros, Kawa Ada, and Kyra Harper. © 2019 Cylla von Tiedemann.

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