Chris Eldon Lee review Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen”, which is at Clwyd Theatr Cymru in Mold until Saturday 23 November.
Three characters emerge into a wide, dappled grey space. They too are in ghostly grey and explain candidly to the audience that now they are dead they can get to the bottom of an unspeakable issue that irreparably destroyed their friendship in Copenhagen in 1941.
Niels Bohr (a half-Jewish Dane) and German Werner Heisenberg are pioneering nuclear scientists. The latter is the former assistant of the other. They go for a long walk in the park together – but are back in ten minutes because someone has said something utterly shocking. What did they say? And what was the reply? Memories contradict one another.
Now that no one can be betrayed, and now they know that Hiroshima has happened, it’s as if the two men are conducting an experiment into their own history together.
As they draft and re-draft the story of their encounters, what emerge are the impossible moral dilemmas all World War Two nuclear scientist were forced to face – on both sides of the arms race. If you have the ability to construct an atomic bomb, should you work relentlessly to annihilate the enemy? Or does your conscience insist you delay till there’s no need for it?
The absolute irony is that Germany fell behind because they’d got rid of their Jewish scientists. Whilst their kith and kin were systematically exterminated, escaped German physicists developed the American bomb, hoping the threat would save millions of European lives. The tragedy is it was actually dropped to end the Japanese threat. In other words – though Michael Frayn stops short of using them – it was the Jews who finally won the war.
This is exciting thinking, impeccably presented. Frayn’s intense script is an expansive challenge for all three actors – both in content and the speed that director Emma Lucia demands they deliver it. But his natural scientific brilliance, precise prose and painstaking research, make it all as clear as a bell – and for a couple of hours I began to believe I too had grasped the fundamentals of particle physics.
The cast are faultless. In the 1920s, Bohr was the most famous atomic physicist in the world. Simon Armstrong ruffles his grey hair, strokes his beard and fiddles with his pipe – as you might expect of someone thinking way beyond the here and now. But he also layers the man with deep humanity, defiantly protecting mankind against the consequences of his work.
Sion Pritchard is neat, shaven, trimmed and gelled and he plays Heisenberg as a young man so driven by the scientific possibilities he’s oblivious to Hitler’s plans. He has the urgency of a man on a mission so vital, he’s risking his life for it. You could almost measure Pritchard’s blood pressure from the stalls.
In lesser hands, these could be cliché characters, but the profiling here is perfect.
The third character is Bohr’s wife Margrethe, carefully positioned by Frayn as a conduit for the physics (by having to explain their theories to her, the scientists explain it all to us too) and a hawser to tie the men back to the emotional world. Sian Howard puts in an excellent, understated performance as a human barometer, rising and falling with the ebb and flow of the debate; holding the high ground for Humanity, checking their tempers and smiling when they concur. It’s probably the toughest role of the three – but you’d never know it.
It was an evening in which to surrender yourself to the talents of five fine theatre practitioners – writer, director and cast – and to marvel at the brilliance they can achieve with a wealth of well-considered words and a can of grey paint.
Visit www.clwyd-theatr-cymru.co.uk for bookings & information about Clwyd Theatr Cymru.