The Theatreguide.London Review
National Theatre, then Duchess Theatre. 1998-2001
Michael Frayn's new play is a fascinating mystery, physics lesson and psychological drama all in one. It's based on one of the oddest episodes in 20th century science, a world-changing meeting between nuclear scientists that neither of the participants seemed able to remember afterward.
In the 1930s Niels Bohr and his student Werner Heisenberg made major advances in nuclear physics, but a few years later the Dane and the German were on opposite sides of a war and of a race to create the atomic bomb.
In 1941 Heisenberg visited Bohr and almost certainly talked about the difficulties of bomb-building. Heisenberg went back to Germany and failed to develop the weapon; Bohr went to Los Alamos and helped create it.
But what did they talk about, and why didn't Heisenberg get the answers he needed? In subsequent memoirs and interviews, all three parties involved (including Bohr's scientist wife) gave conflicting accounts and even contradicted themselves.
Frayn's play imagines the three in a timeless limbo with all of eternity to try to remember and reconstruct the events of 1941. Along the way, the author skilfully and painlessly integrates a great deal of science, so we actually understand exactly how far they had gotten in the competition for the bomb, and what the unsolved problems were.
(You'll want to go back and kick your science teachers for not having made it this clear and fascinating.)
The play also makes very real the conflicting emotions of scientists dedicated to research but hating the uses that will be made of their work, and particularly Heisenberg's conflict between a passionate love of his country and a hatred of its Nazi regime.
Like detectives solving a mystery, the three scientists work their way to the realisation that it all came down to one technical point.
If Heisenberg had asked a specific question, and Bohr had answered it, the Germans would have gotten the bomb first, and London might look like Hiroshima. Did Bohr refuse to answer? Did he give a wrong answer? Did Heisenberg somehow not ask the question?
Heisenberg is, of course, author of the Uncertainty Principle, the scientific axiom that merely looking at a problem affects the answer you get. And Frayn's characters are very much aware that even agreed-upon memories are no guarantee of truth. So the answers the play comes up with, fascinating and credible as they are, are almost irrelevant.
It is the adventure of the search for truth, and the inescapable blending of the personal and the objective, the heart and the mind, that makes Copenhagen engrossing and exciting theatre.
Originally produced by the Royal National Theatre, the play has transferred to theWest End with new actors. But the power is in the writing, and the fine replacement cast serves it well.
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