REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Attention: students slogging through boring classes of quantum mechanics – have I got a show for you. Go see Copenhagen, the Tony-Award winning play now being staged at the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura. Written in 1998 by Michael Frayn (Noises Off), Copenhagen is an imaginative “what-if” story about a mysterious encounter between former friends and colleagues Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr. The meeting actually took place, in Copenhagen, Denmark in September 1941. Bohr, a Danish scientist who explored the principle of complementarity, was the mentor of Heisenberg, a German theoretical physicist working on quantum theory who had been recruited by the Nazi government to help develop an atomic weapon to be used against the Allies during World War II. What isn’t known is what the two discussed, which brings about a fascinating cat-and-mouse game as the two explore the laws of classical mechanics.
Brett Rickaby (Heisenberg) and Peter Van Norden (Bohr) are the main protagonists, however, Copenhagen includes a third character, Bohr’s wife Margethe, played by Linda Purl, a key addition to the cast in that Margethe makes sure that the dialog between the two scientists is explained without the scientific jargon inherent in such technical conversations. In the story, Frayn explores different reasons for the meeting, resetting each one as he lets the audience decide which is the most plausible. These alternate universes are played out by the characters after their deaths, changing perspectives and exploring some of the most profound moral questions raised by the atomic technology developed during World War II. The question, “Why did you come?” which is posed by Bohr in each setting, is the underlying provocative query, one that remains unanswered throughout the play. It hovers over the story like “Why did you resign?” the overriding question in the 1960s cult British television spy series, The Prisoner.
Heisenberg and Bohr had a father-son relationship between 1924 and 1932, but by the time of their meeting, they had not seen one another in some years. The speculation as to Heisenberg’s sudden return to Copenhagen to meet with Bohr includes several possible answers. Was Heisenberg seeking absolution to assuage his guilt over creating, as Margethe blithely states, “a more efficient means of killing people”? Or, as Margethe suggests in another scenario, is he coming to show off to his former mentor his lofty status in the Nazi scientific community? A third possibility has Heisenberg grilling Bohr, who was to travel to Los Alamos, New Mexico, about his possible cooperation with the Allies on their own experiments with nuclear fission.
Frayn’s dialog makes the concepts of nuclear science easily understood by non-scientifically oriented audiences, but the drama in Copenhagen is heightened by the passion with which the actors deliver their lines. Heisenberg agonizes as he contemplates betraying his country by resisting the research into an atomic bomb. His description of the effects of such a weapon on human beings is horrifying, as he paints word pictures of the landscape of a city after delivery of such a bomb, with dazed survivors wandering through rubble and “puddles of molten phosphorous.” They talk excitedly of the splitting of the atom and the separation of the U238 and U235 isotopes, a key element in what Americans were experimenting with in the Manhattan Project, the research and development program that produced the first atomic bomb.
Sensitively directed by Judy Hegarty Lovett, Copenhagen makes sure the talky script keeps the audience’s attention. Backdrops of complex mathematical equations, eerie music, and dimmed lighting help enhance the atmosphere, especially as a guilt-ridden Bohr recalls his son Christian’s death in a boating accident. (“I should have taken the tiller,” he repeatedly moans.) Rickaby and Van Norden deliver masterful performances – they completely inhabit their subject and drive the drama through the characters’ passion for science. Purl is the glue that holds the show together and keeps the dialog from drifting into complex technical jargon.
Copenhagen is fascinating theater, beautifully staged, and intelligently presented. It is highly recommended, no matter how well you did in high school physics.
Copenhagen plays through September 27 at the Rubicon Theatre Company. See the VC On Stage Calendar for dates and showtimes. On September 23, the show will be followed by a talkback with the cast, while on September 25, there will be a pre-show scientific lecture, further explaining the concepts discussed in the play.