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Theatre Reviews Soulpepper’s Copenhagen revival fails to show the emotional math behind Bohr and Heisenberg

A scene from Michael Frayn's Copenhagen is pictured.

Cylla von Tiedemann/other

  • Title: Copenhagen
  • Written by: Michael Frayn
  • Director: Katrina Darychuk
  • Actors: Kawa Ada, Diego Matamoros and Kyra Harper
  • Company: Soulpepper
  • Venue: Young Centre for the Performing Arts
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to May 4, 2019

rating

A verbose play about ethics, humanity and nuclear physics, Michael Frayn’s brilliant Copenhagen has been delighting audiences for two decades – or simply befuddling them. Certainly, Soulpepper’s uneven revival explains why some theatregoers never did understand what it was Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg were talking about.

The play turns around a 1941 meeting in Copenhagen between the two physicists, the Danish Bohr and the German Heisenberg, Bohr’s former protégé. The war was at its height and Bohr, who was half Jewish, was living under Nazi occupation. In Germany, Heisenberg was collaborating enough to pursue his career unmolested, and during a visit to his old mentor he said something that so angered Bohr the meeting ended on the spot.

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In two acts, with Bohr’s wife Margrethe as witness and chorus, Frayn works through possible scenarios. Maybe Heisenberg was a German spy trying to pump Bohr for information about the Allies’ nuclear program. Maybe he was asking Bohr for advice on what scientists should say when their political masters asked them if they could split the atom. Maybe he was trying to build a reactor for the Nazis himself – but very, very slowly.

Director Katrina Darychuk stages this on a set designed and lit by Lorenzo Savoini and featuring a big hole in the centre, and a mirrored backdrop reflecting sometimes the actors and other times the spectators back at themselves. It’s a smart setting, hinting at many allegories, but Darychuk never makes much of it in a production so short of directorial ideas the actors wind up randomly donning and removing their jackets. Frayn’s script is a potential thriller; here it often drags.

The play's set – designed and lit by Lorenzo Savoini – features a hole in the centre, as well as a mirrored backdrop reflecting sometimes the actors and other times the spectators back at themselves.

Cylla von Tiedemann/other

On opening night, Diego Matamoros’s solid work on a patient but stubborn Bohr was forced to carry the production; Kyra Harper’s Margrethe sometimes felt more stiff than shrewd although she, at least, found her footing in the second half. As Heisenberg, Kawa Ada was struggling throughout to deliver the heavy text with its many descriptions of atoms and particles.

The performances may become smoother and the production more taut as the run continues, but that does not resolve Ada’s interpretation: He makes Heisenberg earnest, nimble and, most of all, pleasant – a lively young European academic, apparently not aged by his encounters with SS persuasion, who would be welcome in any home. It’s a performance that seems to miss the point.

Diego Matamoros, left, and Kyra Harper are pictured during a scene in the play.

Cylla von Tiedemann/other

Frayn took Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle about the unobservability of particles and stretched it into a metaphor for the unknowable nature of human motivation: The play presents us with a central character who might be a hero – or might be a villain. And Frayn did that so successfully, he actually revived the debate about Heisenberg’s wartime role. When the 1998 British hit moved to Broadway in 2000, some Americans were outraged at the suggestion that a German collaborator who did not succeed in building the bomb might be morally superior to a Danish ally who had helped the Americans who did. (Bohr escaped Denmark in 1943 and consulted on the Manhattan Project.) The Bohr archives were even moved to release an unpublished letter in which Bohr said Heisenberg had infuriated him by claiming German victory was inevitable. Frayn, meanwhile, defended his multi-faceted Heisenberg: There is little point to burning cardboard cut-out Nazis on stage.

As demagogues rise again and the world faces the prospect of another man-made apocalypse (this time in the shape of climate change), Copenhagen feels intensely topical. Watching the first Canadian production in 2003, I do not remember being as worried about the fate of humanity as I am today; certainly there are regular chills of déjà vu or looking-glass world to be experienced during this revival. Yet featuring a sympathetic Heisenberg who feels all too knowable, the production also suffers from a certain anachronistic hindsight, as though Soulpepper has sided with one of Frayn’s hypotheses without ever showing an audience the math.

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