Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen has been a long time coming to Brisbane, but this production by the Sydney Theatre Company is well worth the wait. In a way, what Frayn has created is a verbal symphony, with a series of themes introduced, reworked and orchestrated towards climactic insights that use some of the most complex concepts in physics to explain the vagaries of human nature.
However, while the musicians in an orchestra have their notes in front of them, John Gaden as Niels Bohr and Robert Menzies as Werner Heisenberg display dazzling feats of memory as they weave their way through the intricate reworkings of a past remembered differently each time fresh light is thrown on it.
Copenhagen is, at the same time, both a virtuoso celebration of language and ideas, and a tragic demonstration of how difficult it can be for people to understand what someone else is saying, and even what they themselves want to say. As Samuel Johnson once said, “when the notion (of things) is various in various minds, the words by which such notions are conveyed …… will be ambiguous and perplexed”. And Frayn shows how this can happen when close friends and colleagues who once could finish each other’s sentences are divided by the bitterness of divergent allegiances coloured by fascism and anti-Semitism. In a continuing debate over the past that has overtones of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, there is however an adjudicator: Bohr’s wife Margrethe. Played by Jane Harders as a somewhat aloof presence, she makes no secret of her partisanship, but periodically fires crisp bursts of reality through recalled observations that contradict, correct or augment a debatable point.
As directed by Michael Blakemore and designed by Peter Davison, this production offers no distraction from the intensity of the dialogue between two brilliant minds who cover the past in ways that are all too relevant to our present, in matters ranging from the global and ethical to the personal and psychological. In Frayn’s fascinating program notes on his play, however, he is careful to distinguish between the characters he has developed, and the real people that they are based on. And he distances himself from them even more by the clever artefact of recreating them as ghosts or “shades” of themselves, inhabiting an anteroom in the next life while they are still trying to make sense of the previous one.
It is, as always, a sheer delight to watch John Gaden disappear into the role that he is playing. This time, he is a man who struggles with all of his considerable intellectual powers to understand the unknowable about another’s motives while still being haunted by actions of his own that ended in a personal tragedy. It is through Harden’s acerbic comments, however, that we get more insights into the unequal battle that was fought, in life, between his family and his work. As his wife, Harden is the epitome of Scandinavian cool, combining undemonstrative love for Bohr with matter-of-fact appraisals of his shortcomings as a husband and father. In sharp contrast, Menzies plays the part of Bohr’s enigma passionately and powerfully, if at times somewhat unevenly so that it is more difficult to get the sense of the man in his own right rather than as a nuclear reactor.
Together, they are a fine ensemble cast who do justice to a play that draws you in as an individual, and rightly demands your full attention and concentration, as it both expands your knowledge of physics, and challenges your ideas of how to reconcile conflicting personal and national loyalties, and even whether ultimately it is possible to do so. And for those members of the audience who want to cross the line and be drawn right into the play, this production offers the stimulating opportunity of being (silent) members of a jury in tiered seats at the back of the stage.