These are the questions British playwright Michael Frayn explores in his Tony-winning 1998 three-hander Copenhagen, now running in a Soulpepper Theatre Company production that opened in Toronto on Friday. Directed by Katrina Darychuk, this is definitely a play of ideas, with more than two-and-a-half hours of legendary theoretical physicists Bohr (Diego Matamoros) and Heisenberg (Kawa Ada) circling the stage in fierce debate and unreliable recollection – as Bohr’s wife Margrethe (Kyra Harper) brings up points and observations outside their blind spots.
There’s a lot of intense talk about scientific theory in this play – the whole throughline concerns the development of atomic weaponry, while Heisenberg’s famed uncertainty principle plays a strong thematic role. But while this script is challenging, that doesn’t make it incomprehensible to science laypeople. The main focus remains on character and motivation, while much of the science is explained in relatively easy terms. In the end, it works very well – and Darychuk’s direction adds good energy and some interesting visual and aural touches to complement the talkiness.
The premise is simple: the Bohrs and Heisenberg meet again in some afterlife realm to confront each other about what exactly happened on that September night – when Nazi Germany was occupying Denmark at the height of the war, putting the old friends on opposite sides. “No one understands my trip to Copenhagen,” Heisenberg tells the audience. “The more I’ve explained, the deeper the uncertainty has become.” This spurs a long discussion in which the trio reenacts the meeting, recalls the history of their friendship and working relationship, discusses quantum mechanics and the difficulty of getting the right elements for an atomic bomb, and questions each other’s motivations. The meeting is friendly enough for a while, but the scientists go out for an aborted stroll during which Heisenberg’s query about the morality of pursuing atomic science startles Bohr. Is Heisenberg working on the bomb for the Nazis? Or just pursuing information?
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Although the conflict is between Bohr and Heisenberg, Margrethe turns out to be an important focal point as well; as the typist for all of Bohr’s work, she is familiar with his theories, and she brings up important points from an outside point of view. Sometimes, she seems to know these men better than they know themselves. All three bring a passion and an urge to find their answers that makes Frayn’s play far more than an extended conversation, flipping back and forth between past and present – and the original script’s absence of stage directions gives a director freedom to interpret the material in virtually any way.
Darychuk’s Copenhagen strategy is a minimalist staging on a large grey platform designed by Lorenzo Savoini, in which the centre is a large black hole that the actors mostly circle and swerve around, occasionally using it for dramatic purposes, but otherwise pretending it’s not there. The atomic imagery is obvious – the characters are like protons and electrons buzzing around a nucleus – and Savoini makes it clear to the audience with a large, tilted upstage mirror that reflects the actors on the platform. But the mirror has another interesting effect: it distorts the actors. This is particularly potent at the beginning, when Heisenberg sits with his back to the audience, his face a fuzzy reflection in the mirror, suggesting lack of clarity in his intentions (from everybody else’s perspective).
The cast are all strong, especially Matamoros, with the wise, laid-back style he brings to many different types of roles. Harper imbues Margrethe with a mix of compassion and wisdom far beyond her professional role as her husband’s assistant. Working next to these experienced old pros, Ada seems slightly less comfortable (and appears to be rushing through his lines at moments), but comes off strong during his more passionate speeches – particularly his pleas for the Bohrs to understand why he has to be loyal to his country even while it’s being run by monsters. “Germany is all the faces of my childhood, all the hands that picked me up when I fell, all the voices that encouraged me and set me on my way,” Heisenberg explains, garnering sympathy despite the sinister implications.
Not everybody will respond to Copenhagen. Although a deep grasp of the science is not necessary, the play has a dense, verbose script that requires constant attention. But the riches are there for those who make the effort. Frayn asks compelling questions about history, politics, war, scientific ethics, conscience, friendship and empathy that make this play still fascinating after twenty years.
Copenhagen runs at Toronto’s Young Centre for the Arts until May 4.