12 July 2003: Frayne, Copenhagen

New Century Theatre, performing this summer in the rehabilitated auditorium of the Northampton High School. Directed by Ed Golden. With Margery Shaw as Margrethe Bohr, Kenneth Tigar as Niels Bohr, and Sam Rush as Werner Heisenberg

A superb production of an engrossing, troubling play. With the sure instinct for what makes for good theatre that distinguishes Frayne’s wonderful farce Noises Off! Frayne weaves a complex dramatic fabric out of the famous, and famously uncertain, meeting, in Copenhagen in 1941, of Niels Bohr and his German protégé Werner Heisenberg. Bohr’s theory of complementarity and Heisenberg’s theory of uncertainty together become the twin bases for this play, translated from the arcane world of quantum mechanics to the world of common life. We will never know exactly what Heisenberg went to Copenhagen to ask Bohr, and we will never know Bohr’s reply. This, in common layman’s terms, is the complementary uncertainty that grounds this play in human experience. I’ve written about the play before, having seen the original National Theatre production after it transferred to the Duchess Theatre (in 1999, I think, or 2000). This production had its own great merits, including Ed Golden’s crystal clear direction, which is visually crisp and distinct and at the same time brings out wonderful depths of meaning and feeling, at the same time clarifying the personalities of the three characters.

The setting is a round disc of a platform, noticeably raked; on it are three simple vinyl-upholstered metal chairs, which are moved into various positions by the three characters. Behind it is a permanent wall in which three doorways have been opened, and behind that, visible under appropriate lights, a platform and stairs down to an exit ramp. On the wall is represented a circular motif consisting of the markings of a modern compass; within its perimeter we see what seems a redrawing of an old map of the globe, the continents and oceans almost whimsically distorted or exaggerated, with broad white lines curving in various directions, suggestive of wind currents; superimposed as if in flight, squadrons of — could they be birds? Or, more disturbingly, airplanes? Their identity remains ambiguous. At certain moments in the play, a projection appears toward the top the wall of an atom with its electrons traveling around it; and it is animated, so that the overall lines seem to be moving, collapsing momentarily into themselves and then regenerating their shape and moving on. There are no props at all, except for a pipe that Bohr sometimes takes out of his pocket and puts into his mouth, but doesn’t actually smoke. The men are dressed in conventional suits and ties; Margrethe in a dark, somewhat dowdy blue dress and “sensible” shoes.

The characters — the actors, I mean to say — are so good at pantomime that props would be superfluous; and in any case, very little is needed. Every inch of the stage is used, and used well, as Bohr and Heisenberg, now dead, it seems, and living only in a limbo of the dramatist’s devising, repeatedly revisit that fateful meeting in 1941, as Bohr’s wife, patient yet ultimately assertive, acts as a mediatrix between the two. The men tend to cruise around and about, as if they were neutrons or electrons or free radicals, moving erratically out of orbit and nearly colliding at various points in the action. They begin and end each act framed in the doorways upstage, silhouetted in the rising or fading light. And there is much skillful use of light and changes of light throughout. Golden has an uncannily good sense of how to use light to identify or enhance changes of mood and also shifts in “levels” of reality. This is not realism but, rather, a kind of abstract theatricalism, where lighting can be used more symbolically and expressively than in a realistic surround. He uses light directed in this way quite brilliantly.

And he has managed also to bring out the full humanity of the three characters, whose ways of self-definition are very clear and self-assertive yet never mannered or awkward. We are drawn at once into the dense, complex human realities of that unforgettable yet ultimately indefinable meeting of two brilliant scientists, in a context of war and chronic atrocity that is at times, in Frayne’s fine conception, nearly palpable. Golden brings all of that out, too.

I’ve seen a number of productions of Ed Golden’s, over the years, since he has been for over a quarter-century a colleague of mine, in the University Theatre Department, neighboring my English Department. This is his third production for New Century Theatre, the earlier two being Art (2002) and The Weir (2001). I hope, despite his retirement from the University last June, that he will stay around and direct many more plays. His talents are a great resource for any theatre company.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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