Copenhagen” begins with a question — “But why?” — and is likely to leave audiences similarly scratching their heads, and not just because the play immerses the uninitiated in more science than most people confront in a lifetime. It’s rare and admirable to find a playwright talking up to his public, as Michael Frayn does here — provided, of course, that he has actually written a play. The problem is that for all the momentous import of its debates, “Copenhagen” remains intractably untheatrical, and all the valiant efforts of Frayn’s longstanding director, Michael Blakemore, don’t persuade otherwise. You’re better off reading the fascinating postscript to the play rather than seeing the play itself, unless your taste runs to learned displays of intelligence untethered to drama that actually moves.
Following recent examples like Hugh Whitemore’s “A Letter of Resignation” and David Hare’s “The Judas Kiss,” Frayn’s play belongs to a burgeoning genre in Britain: “what happened” dramas that imagine specific conversations between people whose actual meetings at a given time and place were known.
We know, for example, that German physicist Werner Heisenberg (Matthew Marsh) traveled from Berlin to Nazi-occupied Copenhagen in 1941 to visit his Danish counterpart Niels Bohr (David Burke), and that Heisenberg returned to the Danish capital after the war in 1947 — escorted by British intelligence — at which time Bohr refused to see him.
What happened between the two men, both of them Nobel Prize-winning physicists, to prompt Bohr’s later rejection of the acolyte who, Frayn suggests, was a surrogate son?
Therein lies the meat of Frayn’s play, which has all three participants — Bohr’s wife Margrethe (Sara Kestelman) included — looking back on the encounter from beyond the grave, a hoary device that lends the opening remarks an air of pretension that the play never fully dispels.
Why should Heisenberg and Bohr’s talk matter? Because of the topic at hand: the development of the atomic bomb at the hands of the scientist who coined “the uncertainty principle,” i.e. the notion that the momentum and position of a particle cannot both be precisely determined at the same time.
That a meeting between Heisenberg and SS officer Albert Speer the year after the physicist’s defining visit with his mentor failed to produce a German bomb suggests a shift in intention on Heisenberg’s part that lies at the heart of the mystery driving the play.
Does one have the moral right, Heisenberg eventually muses, to work on the practical exploitation of so destructive a force as atomic energy? And what was Heisenberg’s intention in visiting Denmark: to gain information about the Allies’ nuclear project, or perhaps to warn his longstanding colleague and friend of progress on the German front?
Frayn’s speculation comes down on the side of the need for a “quantum ethics” to supplement the quantum physics of which Bohr was the grand master. The “uncertainty principle” isn’t merely a phenomenon of science, the play suggests; it’s a fact of humankind, since individual motivation is no more prone to exact and unwavering measurement than the most observable of particles. Simply put: We are all uncertain.
Scientists will have a field day with a play that got a knowing laugh on opening night from a reference as “a lump of cadmium.” But while Frayn works double-time to make the science in the play accessible, long passages on the meaning of “complementarity” elicited many glazed expressions from spectators perched in rows above Peter J. Davison’s mostly bare lecture hall of a set.
Frayn hasn’t found the aching intersection of the head and heart that fuels a play like Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” whose resident brain, Valentine, engages the audience in a way “Copenhagen” can only dream of. (If you didn’t think talk of “iterated algorithms” could be sexy, reread Stoppard’s play.)
And if Frayn’s command of science — at least to this humanities student — seems firm, his sense of structure has gone for the same walk as his two protagonists. At times, the play resembles a more exalted version of Lee Blessing’s “A Walk in the Woods.”
“Copenhagen” is the kind of work where people are forever telling people things they would already know such as their ages, while Margrethe punctuates the denser discourses to offer tea and cake: She’s a useful figure of respite. Aided by a shifting light show of sorts from Mark Henderson, Blakemore — in his sixth collaboration with Frayn — does his best to pump up the play’s essential airlessness.
But at the performance caught, only the redoubtable Marsh seemed comfortable rattling off the sort of information that few lay people ever confront, with Kestelman and Burke making the best of the faux-Eliot qualities to the final exchange and its talk of “dust.”
As for Frayn, one has to commend this most idiosyncratic of dramatists whose career continues to travel its own fiercely independent path.
But for all the historical weight implicit in “Copenhagen,” there was far more palpable pain and sense of wreckage to the two colliding couples in what remains this writer’s masterwork, “Benefactors,” 14 years ago. It’s as if in writing a play of ideas, Frayn has forsaken the importance of play: “Copenhagen” is at once an impressive intellectual achievement and utterly hermetic.