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: