A Surreal Complexity: Copenhagen


Copenhagen is a dense, and bizarre play. It centres around the reflection on the truth of a past conversation between two old friends, and major players in the nuclear science of World War II, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Set between ‘heaven and an atom’, it explores the complexities of truth in narrative, reality in perspective, and all in what is presumably the afterlife. This makes for an exciting premise, however, what I witnessed in a blank room in LMH, threatens to make this a play intriguing to read, rather than a play to see.

It is true that Sunscreen Productions have a directorial team with high accolades. Notably, their production of Attempts on her Life performed in Hilary Term last year, a pulsating eccentricity, which succeeded in every element of its performance. This is what may give hope for this peculiar play- since the peculiar is very much in the realm of this directorial team’s work. Yet, it is not the direction so much as the acting in which concerns arise about this production. In a brief 10-minute preview, it is difficult to really grasp the essence of this play. However, Rupert Stonehill, acting as Werner Heisenberg, perhaps revealed what may be a key flaw in this production. While Stonehill offered considerable emotional poignancy, this high emotional charge often lapsed into the  emotionally over-wrought. Consistently high-strung emotion instead of attempting to connect with the audience, offers a disconnect instead, and one in which it is easy to distinguish a sense of falseness in this play, rather than the submersion in its ‘reality’. This play is apparently one which is both comedic and tragic. Yet, there was a lack of comedy in the chosen scene performed, and it is telling that the play’s team laughed, and the audience didn’t.

High emotional charge often lapsed into the emotionally over-wrought

Yet, George Varley, as Niels Bohr, offered a more natural and gentle portrayal. It was his performance which presented the almost familial intimacy which is supposed to exist between these characters. Together, they proposed a more sound imitation of a confrontation between two friends: the suppression of anger for forced calmness, irrationality in impassioned peaks, and the effort to meet the middle ground.

It was disappointing that Miranda Collins, playing Margarethe Bohr, was not allowed to show the true nature of her character in this preview. Instead, she was made to simply be a reactionary, passive female character subordinate to male characters- everything to dislike in theatre. However, the directorial team offered assurances that Margarethe is more prevalent in the play than a silent woman, and that she will act as an intermediary between Bohr and Heisenberg offering a perspective that the other two characters cannot see, blinded by the lethal combination of friendship and contention.

It is worrying that, in such a complex play, involving the layering of narratives, the language of high and technical physics, that an audience, without the preceding explanation of an assistant director as I received, would be lost in this play. It will be interesting to see the set design of this play, whether this production will successfully render its ethereal intention, and whether, in the rest of this play, I will be disproved in the elements of comedy and subtlety I fear to be missing in this production.


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