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PREVIEW: PlayMakers Repertory Company Preview: Michael Frayn's Copenhagen Dramatizes a Mid-WWII Conversation About Building the First Weapons of Mass Destruction

& Preview: PlayMakers Repertory Company Preview: Michael Frayn's Copenhagen Dramatizes a Mid-WWII Conversation About Building the First Weapons of Mass Destruction, by Robert W. McDowell

January 23, 2005 - Chapel Hill, NC:


This much is known: in 1941, the German physicist Werner Heisenberg traveled, at no small risk to himself, to occupied Copenhagen, meeting there his old mentor and one-time colleague Niels Bohr. It had been their habit when talking together to walk outside, and with the Bohrs’ home almost certainly bugged by the Germans, perambulation seemed the safest course.

That stroll was exceptionally brief. After a few minutes Bohr returned in a rage, and Heisenberg departed. The subject of their conversation and the reason for Bohr’s fury has remained something of a tantalizing mystery, although there is a strong belief that it likely concerned German efforts toward producing an atomic bomb. From this famous (or infamous) incident, the British dramatist Michael Frayn fashioned his provocative, intellectually bracing three-hander Copenhagen, the 2000 Best Play Tony Award® winner currently being given spirited life at PlayMakers Repertory Company.

Somewhat astonishingly, Frayn manages to give, in his dramatic crash-course on physics, precisely enough information on the subjects debated by his characters quantum physics, Complimentarity and, particularly, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, a key concept here that his audience (like Margrethe, Bohr’s scientifically untrained wife) can follow the free flow of ideas without confusion. (Although it must be exquisite hell for the actors to learn.) Through the striking use of metaphor, and the recurrent notion of seeing the 1941 meeting like drafts for a scientific paper from various angles and perspectives, Frayn illuminates Uncertainty in more ways than one. (Interestingly, he used a similar device to quite different effect in his great backstage farce Noises Off.)

The playwright’s innate theatricality is exhilarating; Copenhagen is not so much a variation on Rashomon (three perspectives of the same incident) as it is a depiction of what might have been said and done in a crucial moment, now lost to view. Bohr, Heisenberg and Margrethe circle each other continuously, electrons revolving around a nucleus whose essential component is a riddle. As Frayn himself notes, “The Uncertainty Principle says that there is no way, however much we improve our instruments, that we can ever know everything about the behavior of a physical object. And I think it’s also true about human thinking.”

Frayn, one of the finest of all Chekhov translators, writes dialogue ironic (Bohr to Margrethe: “My dear, no one is going to develop a weapon based on nuclear fission”), plangently repetitious (Heisenberg’s repeated phrase “If something works, it works,” which begins to achieve truly unnerving connotations) and strikingly visual, as when Heisenberg describes walking through a Berlin raining phosphorous into puddles (“My shoes kept bursting into flame”).

Copenhagen addresses some of the profoundest questions of human existence indeed, the easily imagined end of humanity itself. Was Heisenberg working on the bomb or was he, as he later claimed, subtly working against it? Did he, through a kind of passive resistance, deliberately miscalculate the essential numbers? Could a man of his keen competitiveness bear to cede so momentous a scientific discovery to others especially those nations arrayed against his beloved Germany? Did he bear the guilt of consigning his countrymen to their bitter ruination while simultaneously saving the world from the ghastly specter of a nuclear-armed Adolf Hitler? Or had he, as some have imagined, hopes of luring Bohr to collaboration in Germany? (Since Bohr was half-Jewish and the Nazis had already, in their typically self-defeating fashion, purged all Jews from German science, this seems the least likely explanation.)

Drew Barr, who a few seasons back mounted a superb production of the lovely Jeanine Tesori-Brian Crawley musical Violet at PRC, has directed his cast of three with perfect fluidity and grace, complimenting and expanding upon Frayn’s ideas. He does so in large part through the evocative use of Narelle Sissons’ ingenious set, which mirrors Bohr’s concept of the atom: electrons jut out at right and left angles, up- and downstage two of them bearing complimentary floors of gravel and sand leaving the central playing area as a nucleus (although the rather hideous green covering is suggestive not so much of grass as of a well-used billiard table). Similarly, Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting is effective, but there are perhaps a few too many blackouts and cross-fades, although her approximation of an atomic blast in concert with M. Anthony Reimer’s rather terrifying sound effect builds to a doom-laden intensity of orange.

Barr’s actors could scarcely be improved upon as they essay Frayn’s overlapping dialogue and three-pronged arguments with flawless élan. Greg Thornton is, it seems to me, an ideal Bohr kindly and warm, now cautious, now distraught and finally, combative. Todd Weeks embodies Heisenberg’s rigorous intellectual competitiveness as well as his curious affability wanting so badly to be loved, to remain the good son to his adoptive father figure. (He is, as he well knows, the Prodigal, as grave a disappointment to his mentor as the accidental death of Bohr’s own son.) There is a splendid moment in the first act when Weeks, invoking 1937 by remarking “Just when all my troubles...,” turns his head away from the Bohrs, open-mouthed, coming to a dead stop. It’s a thrillingly elliptical moment. Has the actor gone up on his lines? Will Heisenberg speak again? When? Even better is the Margrethe of Nicole Orth-Pallavicini: proud, courageous, intelligent, outraged, and yet never pushing Margrethe beyond her essential dignity. Her vocal control is a thing to cherish, rich in timbre without any recourse to histrionics.

In a season which has already included a beautifully observed production of Not About Heroes, with Copenhagen PlayMakers continues to sustain its considerable reputation as one of the finest of all local and regional companies.

Note 1: PlayMakers Repertory Company will host three pre-show discussions, starting at 7 p.m., in the Paul Green Theatre: Jan. 26th (featuring PRC dramaturg Karen Blansfield), Feb. 2nd (featuring Kenan Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy Eugen Merzbacher), and Feb. 9th (featuring a UNC Philosophy Department faculty member).

Note 2: There will be a Feb. 11 and 12 weekend seminar entitled “Mentoring the Bomb” and sponsored by the UNC Program in the Humanities and Human Values. Featured speakers include PRC dramaturg Karen Blansfield, speaking on “Theatre, Humanism, Physics and Copenhagen”; UNC Associate Professor of Physics Dmitri Kveshchenko, speaking on “Quantum Mechanics: 70+ Years in the Making”; and UNC Professor of Philosophy Marc Lange, speaking on “Copenhagen and Quantum Metaphysics.” All three speakers will participate in a panel discussion on “Mentoring the Bomb.” For more information, visit http://www.adventuresinideas.unc.edu/level_3/mentoring_spr05.html [inactive 7/05]. For tickets, telephone 919/962-1544.

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Copenhagen Tuesday-Saturday, Jan. 25-29 and Feb. 1-5 and 8-12, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Jan. 30 and Feb. 6 and 13, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Center for Dramatic Art. $10-$40. 919/962-PLAY (7529) or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/. PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/news/index.cfm?nid=26 [inactive 3/05]. Royal National Theatre: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/?lid=1291 [inactive 2/06]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=10290. PBS Interview with Michael Frayn: http://www.pbs.org/hollywoodpresents/copenhagen/id/id_play_1.html [inactive 1/06]. Niels Bohr Archive: http://www.nbi.dk/NBA/webpage.html [inactive 4/07]. Lecture on Copenhagen by Ian Johnston: http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/introser/frayn.htm [inactive 8/05].

 


PREVIEW: PlayMakers Repertory Company Preview: Michael Frayn's Copenhagen Dramatizes a Mid-WWII Conversation About Building the First Weapons of Mass Destruction

by Robert W. McDowell

Did the fate of the Free World hang in the balance, one night in 1941 in Copenhagen, during a tense, elliptical after-dinner conversation between Werner Heisenberg, a world-renowned German atomic physicist then heading up Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s crash program to develop an A-bomb, and his Danish teacher and mentor Niels Bohr, another top atomic physicist who later escaped from Nazi-occupied Denmark and made important contributions to building the atomic bombs that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki and forced Imperial Japan to surrender in August 1945?

In the upcoming PlayMakers Repertory Company production of Copenhagen, staged by frequent PRC guest director Drew Barr (Dinner with Friends, Side Man, The Subject Was Roses, Violet, A Musical, and Wit), prize-winning British playwright and screenwriter Michael Frayn speculates that the controversial Heisenberg-Bohr confrontation in 1941 marked an important turning point in World War II and, perhaps, in the history of mankind. Later, both scientists vehemently disagreed about what was said during their lengthy and, ultimately, disagreeable conversation, but this much is known: For all his theoretical brilliance, the play’s nominal villain, Heisenberg, never quite created an atomic bomb for Hitler; whereas the atomic bombs created by Bohr and cohorts killed tens of thousands of Japanese civilians.

"One of the things that I like best about Copenhagen,” says Drew Barr, “is that the play helps the audience understand as much as possible about quantum physics and quantum theory as much as they need to know, I think, or as much as they can know, if they know nothing coming in.”

The New York-based director adds, “What I’ve come to really appreciate about the play, after having worked on it and gotten inside of it, is how in addition to being a dazzling writer and thinker Michael Frayn isn’t showing off. He’s really interested in deep, basic questions about life and the human experience. So, he really lays things out pretty beautifully and simply; and, in some ways, what I’ve been doing is just trusting all of the work that he’s done and setting up an environment to help the audience understand all that they need to know to be able to experience the story that’s unfolding before them.”

In Copenhagen, Michael Frayn speculates on fortuitous consequences for the Allies of Heisenberg’s inexplicable failure to produce an atomic bomb (did he deliberately sabotage Hitler’s A-bomb program?) and on the mixed results for mankind of Bohr’s stupendous success in creating “Fatman” and “Little Boy,” the first and, so far, most catastrophic WMDs. Frayn sets Copenhagenmany years after the 1941 meeting, in an “afterlife” in which all three characters can speak the truth as they relive their long-ago falling out.

The PlayMakers production of this award-winning drama stars guest actors Greg Thornton and Nicole Orth-Pallavicini as Niels and Margrethe Bohr and Todd Weeks as Werner Heisenberg. Thornton is a regional-theater veteran, Orth-Pallavicini will be making her PRC debut, and Weeks will be returning to PlayMakers after a 21-year absence. (He played Young Pericles in PRC’s 1983 production of William Shakespeare’s Pericles.)

Copenhagen is the first original play that Michael Frayn (Noises Off, Clockwise, and Democracy) wrote for The Royal National Theatre in London. Directed by Michael Blakemore, Copenhagen opened at the RNT’s Cottesloe Theatre on May 28, 1998, then transferred to the Duchess Theatre on Feb. 9, 1999 and closed on April 7, 2001. The original London production of Frayn’s 16th original work for the stage won the 1998 Evening Standard Drama Award for Best Play.

In reviewing the London production, Michael Billington of The Guardian claimed, “Not the least of [Copenhagen’s] virtues is that it shows that out of a three-character, one-set play you can create both intellectually gripping drama and a metaphor for what Lear called ‘the mystery of things.’… Some claim to have been blinded by Frayn's science [but] I emerged deeply moved by his simultaneous awareness of life's value and its inexplicable mystery.”

Copenhagen made its Broadway debut on April 11, 2000 at the Royale Theatre, where it ran for 326 performances before closing on Jan. 21, 2001. The show’s American premiere, also under the direction of Michael Blakemore, starred Philip Bosco and Blair Brown as Niels and Margrethe Bohr and PlayMakers Repertory Company alumnus Michael Cumpsty as Werner Heisenberg. Copenhagen won the 2000 Tony Awards® for Best Play, Best Direction of a Play, and Best Featured Actress in a Play.

In reviewing the Broadway production, Carol Rocamora of The Nation wrote, “An evening with Michael Frayn's dazzling new drama will be among the most exhilarating, challenging and involving two and a half hours you ever spend in a theater. And you don't need an advanced degree to understand the profound questions it raises about motive, morality and the betrayal of memory. They're at the very epicenter of the turbulent twentieth century from which we're just emerging, questions that take us straight to the heart of human existence.”

PlayMakers guest director Drew Barr says, “There are things that I’ve come to understand and know only since I’ve gotten to know the play. I didn’t seen the original production [of Copenhagen], and reading a play is so different from seeing it.… Originally, I was drawn to the historical mystery that’s at the heart of the play; and I was drawn by the science.

"One of the reasons that I love to work on plays,” Barr confesses, “is because I get to learn about different cultures, different worlds, and different historical periods. Originally, one of the things that did draw me to [Copenhagen] is a somewhat selfish desire to get to understand the play and its subject better. Through that, I’ve come to see the questions that it asks about personal responsibility to the people around us and to our countries and to the wider world and to history.”

Barr says his job, as director, is, “first and foremost is just help the audience to hear and understand the play as it unfolds, because the play is giving them all the information that they need, and the play is explaining, as well as anyone can explain, the science.

"I’ve now read and studied and listened to many explanations of the science,” he says. “I feel like my work and the actors’ work is to engage the audience in the story of Niels and Margrethe Bohr and Werner Heisenberg as people to whom the audience can feel an emotional connection. Once that connection is there, hopefully the audience will follow these characters through the story and the science will take care of itself. Certainly, there are moments in the play that ask for me to help physicalize or to illustrate a scientific concept.”

Barr adds, “The play imagines a meeting between Niels Bohr and his wife, Margrethe, and Werner Heisenberg, long after the three of them have died, in which they grapple with the circumstances that brought about a meeting that took place between Niels and Werner in Copenhagen in 1941, a meeting that destroyed the friendship and working relationship of these two men who together came up with one of the foundational schools of thought of contemporary physics. And who wouldn’t want to see that?”

In addition to director Drew Barr, the PRC creative team for Copenhagen includes set designer Narelle Sissons, lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger, costume designer Kim Sorenson, and sound designer M. Anthony Reimer.

Drew Barr says the thrust stage of the Paul Green Theatre is perfectly suited to Copenhagen: “The fact is the thrust stage is ideal for working on a play like this, and the original London and Broadway productions took a proscenium theater and essentially tried to turn it into an arena theater. They seated part of the audience on the stage surrounding the actors.

"So, a play that takes play in a kind of limbo or purgatory, as Copenhagendoes, really makes very minimal demands scenically, which we are kind of embracing,” Barr admits. “That, too, is ideal for a thrust stage. It really just calls for the actors on the stage and three chairs, which I believe they used in the original productions. The play responds very well to the fluid, dynamic staging demanded by a thrust stage.

"The actors are absolutely circling each other,” Barr notes, “but the actors are always circling each other at PlayMakers. That’s the kind of staging that a dynamic space like that requires.”

He claims, “What’s so exciting about Copenhagen is that it’s a real piece of theater. It’s not a static event. It’s a very dynamic, active investigation of a real historical meeting and the deep mystery at the heart of human relationships.

"It can’t be denied that the idea that people circling each other is analogous to the idea of electrons circling the nucleus of an atom,” says Barr. “They don’t actually circle each other in real life. It’s a useful visual image to help us visualize something that ultimately is not visualizable.”

Drew Barr says, “The [PRC] set was actually inspired by Niels Bohr’s original image of the atom, which has since then evolved into the atomic daisy. We were looking for a very strong, dynamic playing space. Then we wanted to take this physical space that was very abstract, and we wanted to introduce some elements of the natural world into it. So, [the set] incorporates grass and gravel and sand. The set has a kind of surreal, other worldly feel, I think.”

Interviewed in the middle of rehearsals, Barr says, “Lighting is always one of the last things that comes into the production, so there’s little that I can say about that at the moment. Lighting will be a key element of the play because of the dynamic of the space and the staging.”

He adds, “We wanted to clothe the characters in such a way that they are both of their time, 1941, and somewhat out of time as well. As all three of them are dead, we imagined them in somewhat funereal garb, perhaps dressed in what they might have been buried in.”

In summing up the enduring audience appeal of Copenhagen, director Drew Barr declares, “I think that the play is really a mystery. It’s easy to imagine that Copenhagen is going to be a mind-bender in a dry, academic way. Actually, the play is a great, engaging puzzle that has lots of twists and turns and has great rewards emotionally and intellectually.”

Note 1: PlayMakers Repertory Company will host three pre-show discussions, starting at 7 p.m., in the Paul Green Theatre: Jan. 26th (featuring PRC dramaturg Karen Blansfield), Feb. 2nd (featuring Kenan Professor Emeritus of Physics and Astronomy Eugen Merzbacher), and Feb. 9th (featuring a UNC Philosophy Department faculty member).

Note 2: There will be a Feb. 11 and 12 weekend seminar entitled “Mentoring the Bomb” and sponsored by the UNC Program in the Humanities and Human Values. Featured speakers include PRC dramaturg Karen Blansfield, speaking on “Theatre, Humanism, Physics and Copenhagen”; UNC Associate Professor of Physics Dmitri Kveshchenko, speaking on “Quantum Mechanics: 70+ Years in the Making”; and UNC Professor of Philosophy Marc Lange, speaking on “Copenhagen and Quantum Metaphysics.” All three speakers will participate in a panel discussion on “Mentoring the Bomb.” For more information, visit http://www.adventuresinideas.unc.edu/level_3/mentoring_spr05.html [inactive 7/05]. For tickets, telephone 919/962-1544.

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents Copenhagen Wednesday-Saturday, Jan. 19-22, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Jan. 23, at 2 p.m.; Tuesday-Saturday, Jan. 25-29 and Feb. 1-5 and 8-12, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Jan. 30 and Feb. 6 and 13, at 2 p.m. in the Paul Green Theatre of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Center for Dramatic Art. $10-$40. 919/962-PLAY (7529) or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/. PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/news/index.cfm?nid=26 [inactive 3/05]. Royal National Theatre: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/?lid=1291 [inactive 2/06]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=10290. PBS Interview with Michael Frayn: http://www.pbs.org/hollywoodpresents/copenhagen/id/id_play_1.html [inactive 1/06]. Niels Bohr Archive: http://www.nbi.dk/NBA/webpage.html [inactive 4/07]. Lecture on Copenhagen by Ian Johnston: http://www.mala.bc.ca/~johnstoi/introser/frayn.htm [inactive 8/05].