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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Theatre review: Copenhagen is a largely intellectual exercise

Superb cast helps overcome play's lack of an emotional core

Paraphrasing Barbie, math is hard. So is theoretical physics, and Michael Frayn’s very heady Copenhagen.

Based on actual events, Copenhagen is set in 1941 as German nuclear physicist Werner Heisenberg visits his friend and colleague Niels Bohr in the title city. As World War II continued to take its toll across much of Europe, including the occupation of Denmark, exactly what transpired between the two during their visit was never revealed. It is widely believed however, the two scientists discussed the possibility of building an atom bomb.

With Heisenberg head of the German nuclear weapon project at the time, it is not a stretch to believe the two talked about a nuclear bomb’s possibility, but details continue to be controversial.

In his 1998 Tony-winning play, playwright Michael Frayn reunites the two men, and Bohr’s wife Margrethe, in a mysterious after-world, where they attempt to recall the details of their meeting.

Like the controversy around their meeting though, rarely does anything come into focus. Specifics are forgotten, memories are faulty.

Except, of course, when it comes to the discussions the men have on their scientific theories. It is here Frayn leaves some of us behind, with great chunks of bantering about things like wave theory and the uncertainty principle. There are also long laundry lists of the men’s contemporaries. At times, it is enough to make the head spin on a plastic doll with an unrealistic body image.

Crammed between the theoretical physics like the atoms around us, there are a few moments of emotional connection, but Frayne has a tough time stepping outside his head.

As science, politics and ethics collide, the horrific consequences of a nuclear bomb are largely overwhelmed, and we are rarely given time to consider them with any emotional resonance.

It is a huge gap when you consider what might have been at stake in Heisenberg’s supposed nuclear quest for the Nazis, and in Bohr’s role in developing the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Frayn does try to mitigate things somewhat by forcing us to examine moral questions, but they too become topics for intellectual debate, rather than ones of the heart. While one could argue intelligence discourse trumps emotional response, it ignores the human condition. The natural balance is missing, and while it is sometimes good to be slightly off-kilter in a theatrical world, here it is distancing.

Ironically perhaps, despite the lack of emotional core, the cast is superb.

As Bohr’s wife, who acts as somewhat of a conduit between the two men’s faulty memories, Tara Pratt comes closest to finding the emotional side of the equation. The play’s conscience, unlike the two pragmatic men, she cuts through the rhetoric.

As the seemingly conflicted Heisenberg, Eric Regimbald is at times a wind-up toy set on fast forward. Passionate discourse gives rise to small glimpses of humanity.

As Bohr, Francis Boyle is grounded in the atrocities of war, balanced with an academic fervor to match his friend.

The trio’s natural delivery, even as dialogue becomes laden with science, helps immensely in conquering this intellectual exercise.

Director Tanya Mathivanan effectively stages Copenhagen in the round on Sarah Melo’s spare set. Like electrons circling the nucleus of an atom, Mathivanan presents the play’s narration as characters navigate around the central playing area.

Her device is helped immensely by Scott Zechner’s lighting design, who also provides an omnipresent soundscape.

Copenhagen is not an easy play, and Mathivanan acknowledges as much in her program notes. Fortunately, this superb cast helps us maneuver through what is largely an exploration of ideas rather than ideals.

Copenhagen by Michael Frayn. Directed by Tanya Mathivanan. An Aenigma Theatre production on stage at Studio 16 (1551 West 7th Ave., Vancouver) until July 1. Visit for tickets and information.

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