Cambridge Arts Theatre
Reviewed – 12th July 2021
“With the excellence of the three actors’ diction and their evident belief in their doctrines, I can convince myself I even understand it all”
Why did the physicist Werner Heisenberg visit his former colleague Niels Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941? Heisenberg was German, Bohr Danish and half-Jewish, and Copenhagen was under Nazi occupation. It is a question we hear asked on numerous occasions during Michael Frayn’s award-winning play from 1998, in this new production directed by Emma Howlett following initial direction by Polly Findlay.
There are just three characters in the re-enactment of this puzzling wartime conundrum. The impetuous, excitable Heisenberg played by the excellent Philip Arditti, the older and more ponderous Bohr (Malcolm Sinclair), and between them Bohr’s wife Margrethe (Haydn Gwynne).
There is minimal set (designed by Alex Eales) with the stage stripped back to its black painted walls. A few parlour chairs and a sideboard suffice for Bohr’s drawing room. Hovering above everything is a large illuminated white halo; at the beginning, perhaps indicating the movement of an electron orbiting its atomic nucleus. By the end of the play, surely portraying the rim of an exploding mushroom cloud. Beneath it, there is not much in the way of movement, the three players pace up and down, placing and replacing chairs in a series of socially-distanced triangles. For one brief moment, Heisenberg breaks out into a short run.
What we do have are words, lots of them: quantum mechanics, the wave equation, the Copenhagen Interpretation, relativity, uncertainty, complementarity. Heisenberg and Bohr discuss and defend their treatises, their arguments flying back and forth like others may argue the merits of a United versus a City. Between them sits Margrethe, sometime observer, sometime inquisitor, umpire, and arbiter. It is a delightful irony that she is the one who offers up the clearest explanation of any of the physics talk, pragmatically bringing the scientific theories down to earth.
With the excellence of the three actors’ diction and their evident belief in their doctrines, I can convince myself I even understand it all. Arditti’s performance is full of energy, with driving momentum in his attempt to prove that Heisenberg’s motives should not be misunderstood. Sinclair’s twinkly eyed portrayal of Bohr shows us a lot of his charm but, through all the science, we do not see much of the man beneath. Haydn Gwynne emphasises Margrethe’s support as the scientist’s wife. Her loving glances towards Heisenberg as he replaces the son she tragically lost, turn into steely stares as she mistrusts his motives towards her husband.
Heisenberg is primarily remembered for his Uncertainty Principle. And the play exploits the notion that there is so much uncertainty about Heisenberg himself. To what extent did he deliberately slow down any progress in developing a Nazi atomic bomb, or did he just not understand enough of the science? And as we take another look at Heisenberg arriving on Bohr’s doorstep in 1941 is it to gloat over the progress of the German nuclear programme, or to suggest a scientists’ pledge not to work for either side in developing an ultimate weapon of mass destruction?
The most poignant moment of the evening comes as Heisenberg explains hearing about the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima whilst interned at Farm Hall in Godmanchester. This fact is first enjoyed by this audience as a piece of local history, but then the penny drops that all this talk about science is not just theoretical but can lead to such apocalyptic results.
So why did Heisenberg visit Copenhagen in 1941? Heisenberg’s final words, “Uncertainty [is] at the heart of things”.
Reviewed by Phillip Money
Photography by Nobby Clark
Cambridge Arts Theatre until 17th July then UK tour concludes at the Rose Theatre Kingston
Previously reviewed by Phillip:
Stephens House and Gardens, Finchley
Reviewed – 18th September 2020
“There is so much charisma and bite on stage, it seems slightly ridiculous that we should be allowed to experience this in such an intimate setting.”
Twenty or so fold-out chairs, scattered two metres apart, surround a small fairy-light-canopied stage, nestled beneath a big old tree at the bottom of the garden. Not quite summer anymore, there’s a significant nip in the air as the sun sets behind us, and the select crowd snuggles in to their jumpers and coats (one couple taking a sneaky swig from a hidden flask- not a bad idea), readying for the show to begin.
It doesn’t get much more picturesque than that, really. And besides the fact the location was likely chosen due to Covid, it feels more like the perfect setting for a small Midsummer Night’s Dream production or Woolf’s pageant in Between The Acts, and the limited audience makes it feel all the more special. Maybe it’s not extra practical for the production, but I’m having a very nice time…
“Why is everything so bland?”, Cesare Borgia (James Corrigan) begins, lamenting the misery and boredom of his princely responsibilities. He yearns for a taste of freedom, and so decides to offer his position and title to a passing unemployed politician, Niccolò Machiavelli (Nicholas Limm) who jumps at the opportunity, while Borgia himself guises as a struggling artist because, as he rightly posits, “The truth is simple: Artists win at life.” Simultaneously, Leonardo da Vinci (Akshay Sharan), similarly sick of his lot, decides to seek something more grounded than the lofty arts and, also disguised, finds a job in the Borgia palace as a politician. Cue a series of hilarious misunderstandings, disguises piled on top of disguises, genders swapped, stations elevated and swiftly demoted.
Writer Charlie Ward packs a lot in: war, politics, religion, romance, gender identity, class disparity, and all in a form that sits somewhere between a bedroom farce and a Shakespearian comedy.
Everything is in rhyming couplets and iambic pentameter (I think?) and just as with a Shakespeare play it takes a little while to find the rhythm, so with Renaissance, the first few scenes of dialogue are largely lost while the audience recalibrates. But it does give the story a pace, and a certain flavour which, being that it’s set in the sixteenth century, feels apt.
Before lockdown, nearly the entire cast was committed to major theatrical projects elsewhere, and you can see why. There is so much charisma and bite on stage, it seems slightly ridiculous that we should be allowed to experience this in such an intimate setting. The physical comedy and timing displayed, combined with everyone’s extensive previous experience with Shakespearian language brings a very comfortable, natural delivery, as though they spent their lives speaking in rhyming couplets. Corrigan whips between silly and domineering with ease; Bethan Cullinane is a force, so quietly sure of herself, she hardly moves whilst somehow absolutely commanding the stage. And Haydn Gwynne is just fabulous. Considering the immediate affect her presence makes on stage, she feels slightly underused, though you might say that of the whole cast really.
Director Emma Butler’s design is massively pared down, a necessity for such a small stage, and a relief really – there’s already enough to focus on with the grandiloquent language, and striking performances: Costumes consist of a simple palette of whites, creams and dusky pinks, and the ‘disguises’ comprise skirts swapped for trousers, shirts rebuttoned disheveledly, and dodgy French accents. It works though, and adds to the comedy, that someone should merely put a hat on and say they’re someone different from the person they were two minutes prior in the same company.
As theatre slowly starts to pick itself up again, even those productions that do manage to cobble something together will likely be taking an artistic hit, having to re-mould themselves in line with government guidelines. On this occasion, though, the restrictions have only enhanced the audience’s experience. How often do we have the chance to enjoy such a concentration of talent in such an intimate setting, and with fresh, new writing? Take the opportunity while you can, before (hopefully) everything returns to some semblance of normality and such an event becomes near impossible.
Reviewed by Miriam Sallon
Photography by Charlie Ward
Stephens House and Gardens until 20th September
Last ten shows reviewed by Miriam: