Sunday, 26 August 2018

REVIEW: Copenhagen at the Chichester Festival Theatre

Having just returned from a cruise that took us to Elsinore in Denmark and the Neuemgamme Nazi forced labour camp memorial site near Hamburg where many dissident German and Danes were killed by excessive work and starvation between 1938 and 1945, there was a real poignancy and context to this first theatre visit on return to see Copenhagen at Chichester.

It is 1941 and the German Physicist Werner Heisenberg has returned to see his mentor and father like figure the Danish Jew Niels Bohr . Both are working on nuclear fission and both know that this could create a nuclear bomb for their masters. There are conflicting recollections on this real life meeting which Michael Frayn first explored in this play in 1998 and although more evidence has come to light since then there is no major revision to the text for this revival . They recall their first work together from 1924 and 1927 and their long walk to Elsinore castle but the world has changed since then with Nazi's in control of much of Europe and Heisenberg now Professor at Leipzig. Both know they are being spied on and live in fear of the Labour camps.

This very human relationship story becomes the vehicle for an extraordinary exploration of the the theory of Quantum Physics, the uncertainty principle and the Copenhagen Interpretation written in 1928. Frayn's writing is brilliantly creative using not just the words but the structure and direction of the play to explain the development of the theories and the revisions to their views over time. He may not know what was said in that meeting or the motivation for the it but uses the event to explore the moral dilemmas that scientists may face, the tension between personal feelings and national pride and plays with the idea of the scientific uncertainty principle in their relationship. 

Paul Jesson plays the concerned father figure Bohr, wary of his visitor but still recalling their strong personal bond developed years before.At times he appears to stumble over his complex words but easily establishes the man's personal torment from his situation and guilt over the death of his son. Patricia Hodge plays his formidable wife Margrethe who provides both an observer's narration to the meetings and is more open about her feelings and suspicions towards the visitor. She is magnificent, always present but fading up and down her involvement and insight .

Charles Edwards plays the uncertain former mentee Heisenberg, nervously
circling the issue he wishes to address with his mentor and equally fearful of the consequences. As they move around the tight circular stage, experienced Director Michael Blakemore, easily establishes the metaphor of two electrons circling the nucleus and dramatically shows the possible outcome of their collision in a powerful conclusion to the second act.

The lighting by Mark Henderson and video by Nina Dunn add dramatically to the story telling, setting the scenes and adding to the tension and drama of this otherwise simply staging using just three silver chairs which reflects the imaginary after death meetings of the protagonists. 

This is brilliant multi layered theatre exploring the complex science and the human stories of the two men and using a powerful physical metaphor and plain language to explain their interactions and dilemmas. With an excellent cast, flawless direction and effective staging this is a revival that will surely transfer into the West End.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★★

Seat: Row E | Price of Ticket: £48
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