Written by Michael Frayn. Directed by Katrina Darychuk. Until May 4 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane. soulpepper.ca or 416-866-8666
British playwright Michael Frayn is best known for the backstage farce Noises Off, a critical and audience darling that has its actors run, change, fall and fail with the calculated precision of a chemist; combine egos with broken sets and lost contacts results in laughs, as expected.
In theory, Frayn’s next major success following Noises Off — the heady physics lesson of Copenhagen, which dramatizes a posthumous confrontation between the infamous German physicist Werner Heisenberg, his mentor Niels Bohr and Bohr’s wife Margrethe — might feel like an abrupt change in style and form. But there’s a kind of symmetry between them; the actors in Copenhagen are tasked with an equally difficult and precise job, only they’re meant to dizzy the audience with ideas, arguments and the fallibility of memory instead of comedy.
The intricacies of Frayn’s script — and the boldness of spending the majority of its two acts on long, complicated dissections of subatomic theory, a Rolodex of names of influential European scientists of the early and mid-20th century, and an increasingly detailed timeline of historical events — is what won Copenhagen the Evening Standard award for best play when it premiered in London in 1998, and the Tony Award when it went to Broadway in 2000. The overstimulation of information, facts, theories and recollections belies what drives these ghostly figures, who meet in an anachronistic limbo to finally decipher why Heisenberg travelled to German-occupied Copenhagen to meet with Bohr in September 1941, and how that meeting may or may not have influenced Heisenberg’s attempt to build a nuclear bomb for Germany, or may or may not have eventually lead Bohr to join the Manhattan Project to complete one for the United States. The conversation should ricochet, rise and fall like neutrons and protons orbiting a nucleus, to borrow an obvious metaphor.
The current production of Copenhagen at Soulpepper Theatre directed by Katrina Darychuk captures this visual in Lorenzo Savoini’s set, which places a dark circular chasm in the middle of a raked grey floor, and reflects it back to the audience through a large distorted mirror that’s angled overtop — though this hole is seldom used in Darychuk’s staging, and loses its foreboding presence the longer the three cast members (Kawa Ada as Heisenberg, Diego Matamoros as Bohr and Kyra Harper as Margrethe) easily navigate around it. It does, however, give the impression of smaller particles circling some kind of magnetic force over and over again, just as the characters find new approaches to the central question “Why did [Heisenberg] come to Copenhagen?” again and again throughout the script.
But if these characters combine to form an atom, it’s hard to believe this atom would have the energy to destroy cities and hundreds of thousands of lives if in the wrong hands. Darychuk is almost unseen as a director, as if the actors are left to grapple with monologues of complicated scientific theories as well as complex emotional states on their own. The results are long streams of intense banter that leave the audience behind, despite Bohr’s several urgings to keep his theorizing with Heisenberg in laymen’s terms so Margrethe can keep up, which has expectations that are far too high for the audience or far too low for her. And on opening night, the cast was focused yet sometimes seemed to struggle with the daunting script; the technical aspects of the dialogue hadn’t yet settled enough to believe that these people ate, breathed and slept physics. And in such a text-focused script and a production that doesn’t try to embellish or enhance that script, opting to leave it in the hands of the actors, quick stumbles or searching pauses are far easier to spot.
Darychuk’s production is clearest when the script dives into personal territory — the dynamic of Niels and Margrethe’s marriage and his absence as a parent, for instance, or Margrethe’s emergence as the most reliable narrator given her position as an observer to the two self-absorbed scientists (here, though, you wish Harper could dig in deeper to Margrethe’s role as antithesis to the two men, and let more anger or confidence show through) — and Darychuk chooses to emphasize these moments with enhanced lighting (also by Savoini) and Richard Feren’s classical and atmospheric sound design. But when these design shifts occur, Darychuk sometimes can’t find a smooth way out of them, and the momentum pauses while the lights and sound return to normal.
Using technical elements like these to draw more attention to these moments of character revelations and backstory are helpful, but on the other hand, highlight how infrequent they are, and how dry the science-speak is in comparison. It’s difficult to argue for the relevance of the script, as carefully constructed as it is, in an age of increasingly shortened attention spans.
As Heisenberg famously discovered in his Uncertainty Principle, there’s no way to find easy answers in the laws of physics. And Frayn’s script feels at peace, even revels, in that uncertainty. But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a firm hand guiding these characters and their unanswered questions, trying, with clarity, to find them.
Carly Maga is a Toronto-based theatre critic and a freelance contributor for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @RadioMaga