Written by Michael Frayn
Directed by Ross Hope
Spectres linger in Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, which received a strong reception from audiences at the Assembly Roxy last week. Edinburgh Graduate Theatre Group utilise their usual pedigree to translate a tricky play with competence and intellect.
Opening, in quite the contrary way to a performance so steeped in science and reality, Copenhagen finds itself clad in the crisp whiteness of dust sheets, a home locked in antiquity – one about to be unveiled as the spectres of the past attempt to solve their discrepancies one last time.
From the top of the Assembly Roxy seating two voices echo as they make their way to the stage: Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his wife Margarethe Bohr. Their ghostly figures have a relatively pleasant chit-chat as the conversation turns to the third person in this tale – Werner Heisenberg: a friend of Bohr’s, and the man who would one day become head of the Nazi-Germany nuclear weapons project.
Telling (and in ways re-telling) a meeting the two men had on an evening in 1941, Michael Frayn’s political-historical drama reframes this evening from a few different angles throughout the evening as the memories of Bohr and Heisenberg in this stage-limbo (chillingly lit by J. Gordon Hughes) reflect on their differing chronologies, and of a meeting in Copenhagen which ended their relationship. Colliding over many details there is only one crucial question: what precisely was Heisenberg doing at Bohr’s house that evening? Spying for the opposition or scouting for tips? Or maybe, perhaps, some redemption.
Copenhagen presents historical, ideological, and political contexts within the scientific explanations – while it isn’t entirely exhausting, Frayn’s text can become overwhelming. Though key moments are struck their writing has a non-linear structure to storytelling, certainly coming with drawbacks initially – but gradually the sense of time is eroded as we whip between pre-WWII, the height of the Third Reich, and to the fallout and tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Character is where The Grads excel, Lawrence Wareing and Alan Patterson giving degrees of frustration and humour to their roles to flesh out the mortality beneath the intelligence of our two leads. The pair are a tremendous asset for director Ross Hope, who makes an impact with the staging and off-stage dialogue. To be frank – Frayn’s is a rich text in scripting and intensity, but Patterson, Wareing and (to a lesser extent due to the script) Goldie achieve a sense of the person behind the pages of history rather exquisitely.
There’s such a genuine sense of sincerity to Patterson and Wareing’s reunion as Bohr and Heisenberg – yet they still initially have tension around the other. It manifests in small ways, looks and smiles, even pauses for breath as the pair walk and converse, engrossed in their scientific discussions. It’s a commendable performance from both, especially Patterson who manages to integrate a sense of comprehension while describing nuclear fission, and Wareing drives home the ethical discussions surrounding progress and their contributions to the development of the Manhattan Project.
Patterson is afforded the benefit of addressing the audience more directly, as is Helen Goldie’s Margarethe Bohr taking the role of a referee of sorts as the pair’s relationship reaches more fevered discussions. There’s a remarkably painful poignancy, which is to be expected, from Patterson’s Heisenberg as he explains what happened following Germany’s surrender, but never attempts to downplay the atrocities committed – Wareing performing admirably, reminding all of Bohr’s Jewish ancestry and persecution with a resilient strength that still allows tiny flickers of pain and trauma to manifest.
As Patterson collides with Wareing, who in turn collides with Goldie, the powerful fission of the two physicists’ discussion occurs in front of the audience – Hope’s pacing builds in momentum as the first act evolves, the trio ricocheting off of one another’s responses, actions and expressions to maintain a gloriously dynamic sense of energy throughout the first act – reaching a fever pitch, concluding just before it falls off of the ripe dramatic peak. And perhaps this is why the second act takes a little longer to get going once more, with all of that juicy momentum left behind before the interval drinks. It’s no fault of the performers, or Hope’s direction, to the contrary they all manage to handle the significant dip between the two acts with vigour, within minutes are back to the position they held, the audience enraptured by history, appreciative of the performances on stage, and the voices to the past they were perhaps unfamiliar with.
Arguments surrounding the ethical debates of science are, and quite rightly, fraught with diverse opinions and complex notions. To structure a two-act historical drama around one of history’s most significant and catastrophic demonstrations of raw power is not an easy task, but Hope and The Grads meet Frayn’s Copenhagen with their usual degree of quality and rise above issues to perform a sterling piece of theatre, with intelligence, exceptional lead performances, and a tight grasp on translating less linear narratives to eager audiences.
Sterling Piece of Theatre
Copenhagen runs at the Assembly Roxy until May 20th. Wednesday – Saturday at 19.30pm.
Running time – Two hours and twenty minutes including one interval
For additional information about The Grads, including their upcoming Festival Fringe performances, please visit their website here.
Photo Credit – Kate Stephenson
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