“Blue/Orange remains a thought-provoking and relevant play, well-worthy of this new revised production”
This award-winning play by Joe Penhall is set in a London NHS psychiatric hospital where two doctors discuss a possible diagnosis for their patient – schizophrenia, psychosis, neurosis, borderline personality disorder – but we don’t need to fully understand these terms. The crux of the matter is that these two psychiatrists control the freedom of the third man.
The set (Designer Simon Kenny) is a closed black box, no windows, one concealed door. A square on the floor is marked out by a bright white light. Two institutional plastic chairs face each other confrontationally, between them a low table and on it a fruit bowl containing some oranges. Above the stage is suspended a large black block on which a digital clock face is projected showing us the time at the start of each act. The action of the play takes place over a period of one day – the final twenty-four hours before the patient is either free to leave the hospital or he is re-sectioned and detained for a further period.
This is an excellent production. The direction of the players around the space is first-rate (Director James Dacre) and it is hard to find fault in the performances of the three actors. The patient Christopher (Michael Balogun), in grey hoodie, tracky bottoms and trainers, prowls around the space, a caged bear. His moods swing from high spirits to near depression, his movements range from bouncing across the stage to sinking deep in a chair. Balogun convinces us entirely. This man is disturbed, volatile and unpredictable. For him, the oranges in the bowl look blue and, when cut into, the flesh of the orange is blue too. But is he a danger either to himself or others?
Registrar Bruce (Ralph Davis), dressed in grey casual work attire (no men in white coats here), ID lanyard around his neck, suspects that Chris is sicker than he appears and wants to keep him in hospital before his condition deteriorates. But to instruct so means going against the wishes of the Authority and Bruce has his own career ambitions to think about.
Consultant Robert (Giles Terera), in a crisp shirt and smart grey suit and tie, wants Chris released within the day. But Robert also has his own agenda, research to do and a book to write, so how far can he be trusted? Terera shows the self-importance of this man from his first appearance, dominating the space and exuding the character’s class and privilege through perfect posture and enunciation.
The square of the consulting room begins to resemble a sporting arena as both doctors attempt to score points off each other, playing off their patient between them, until just one of them remains standing.
Twenty years since its first production, Blue/Orange remains a thought-provoking and relevant play, well-worthy of this new revised production. And the sincere and honest performances of this cast make a memorable piece of theatre.
“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