Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle
Reviewed – 10th October 2017
“Simon Stephens’ text presents potential clichés but then turns them on their head”
It started with a kiss. A seemingly random kiss but for the characters in this two-hander, it changes everything. Forever. At the outset of the play, Alex (Kenneth Cranham) and Georgie (Anne-Marie Duff) are at a certain point in their lives where they believe they control the way they live.
Alex is sitting in St Pancras station like he has so many times before. But this time an American woman comes up and kisses him on the back of the neck. Why? The following ninety minutes explores this with delicious unpredictability, enforcing the notion that we can never really know what will happen next. The show’s title references German physicist Werner Heisenberg’s scientific principle. Without fully understanding the details it seems fashioned around the reasoning that ‘vagueness’ is built into nature.
The content of the play is actually much more simple than this suggests. It is primarily a love story – at its heart the outstanding performances of Cranham and Duff as the odd couple. They are poles apart but their shared experiences of loss and need for healing make them inseparable. Initially Duff’s volatile Georgie comes across as the stronger of the two characters, yet the silent strength of Cranham’s Alex quickly subverts the pecking order. His suspicious mind refuses to let the wool be pulled over his eyes and this gives him the upper hand. He simultaneously censures Georgie’s unscrupulous motives while bowing to them – with dignity. He gives her what she wants, but only in so far as it is what he wants as well.
They both handle the dialogue expertly. Simon Stephens’ text presents potential clichés but then turns them on their head giving us a whole new way of looking at the unpredictability of relationships – and in particular Georgie’s dubious relationship with truth. The mood can turn on a knife edge and sympathies switch with alarming speed. The emotions grow and shrink within Bunny Christie’s ingenious set of shifting walls. But the strongest moments are the more reflective passages, touching on age, tenderness, loss and loneliness. Kenneth Cranham has a glorious monologue, underscored by Bach’s Sonata for Violin and Piano, where he draws a parallel between the music and life itself. He adores the music, vainly trying to understand a melody whose beauty lies in the fact it takes him completely by surprise: “the secret of the music exists in the spaces between the notes” he concludes.
At ninety minutes I was left wanting more. But this, I am sure, is intentional. We are still uncertain. Both Georgie and Alex are accepting this in the final moments of the play. It is when they realise that things are not within their control that they might get a stab at happiness before it is too late.
The reference to Heisenberg in the play’s title is, if not misleading, superfluous. This is less about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle but more about the general principle of uncertainty inherent in nature, and in particular human nature. We all know that “reason and love keep little company nowadays” but it is an absolute delight to be reminded in such an original way with such impeccable performances from two of theatre’s masters.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Brinkhoff Mögenburg
HEISENBERG: THE UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLE
is at Wyndham’s Theatre until 6th January 2018