copenhagen trio

Malcolm Sinclair as Danish nuclear scientist Niels Bohr, Philip Arditti as Werner Heisenberg. one of Hitler's Uranium Club and Haydn Gwynne as Neils' wife Margrethe


Malvern Theatres


Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg were the rock stars of their age. All right, perhaps not like a Springsteen or a Bowie, but in the world of theoretical physics they were seated at the same table as their god, Einstein.

If Einstein was the god, then, as Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen tells us, the Danish physicist Bohr was the Pope. He had received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1922 for his work on atomic structure and quantum theory and was to give us the principle of complementarity, which is . . . best look that up on Wikipedia.

German Heisenberg, not to be outdone, picked up his Nobel Prize ten years later for the creation of quantum mechanics . . . and that is Wikipedia again.

Theoretical physics is a world of mystery to most of us, a world of atoms, where arguments are about possibilities rather than certainties and Copenhagen takes us to a place where science and politics combine with patriotism and morality.

The play centres around a visit Heisenberg made to his old mentor Bohr in Copenhagen in late 1941 in what was now Nazi occupied Denmark. The half-Jewish Bohr was secretly in contact with the British who were working with the Americans on nuclear fission with the object of creating a nuclear bomb.

Bohr was to escape Denmark, along with 8,000 other Jews, after Hitler’s order to round up and deport Denmark’s Jewish population. The Danes were tipped off about the order incidentally, by German embassy maritime attaché Georg Duckwitz and almost the whole Jewish population were smuggled across the narrow strait to Sweden overnight.

From there Bohr went to Los Alamos to work on the Manhattan project which was to result in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and a nuclear arms race.

Heisenberg was head of a German project, a member of Hitler’s Uranium Club, which was working to . . . and that was the problem, at least on his visit in 1941.

Why was he there, what did he want? He had first arrived in Copenhagen in the 1920s, fresh faced, unknown and eager to work as an assistant to the already famous Bohr. Then Germany was a broken, defeated nation, so was he now returning as an important scientist leading an important project in a nation that had conquered most of Europe, proudly to show off to his old teacher? That was what Bohr’s wife Margrethe had suggested.

Or was he there to find out if Bohr and the allies were working on a nuclear bomb, to find out what he could, a scientific spying mission? If that was the case why did the two go for a walk so they would not be heard by the eavesdropping Nazis?

Perhaps he was there to warn his old friend that the Nazis were working on fission, their own bomb, who knows? And that is the play in a nutshell. No one does, not even the main protagonists who, after the war, could not even agree on where the conversation had been let alone what was said. Much of what they have said and written since about the meeting, a meeting they could not agree on, is contradictory.

Bohr and Heisenberg

Heisenberg and Bohr, colleagues and friends who find themselves on opposite sides. Pictures: Nobby Clark

Philip Arditti is superb as Heisenberg, a skilled musician, brilliant mathematician and talented physicist, visiting an old friend under Nazi occupation full of . . . nervous . . . bon homie, if a little short on tact, talking at a hundred miles and hour. To him the result is the thing, not necessarily the fine detail of how you got there.

He is balanced by Malcolm Sinclair’s Bohr, a man prone to walking about when thinking, much less impetuous, weighing things up and quick to flare up if a principle within his theoretical world was challenged, either that, or to dismiss ideas he found wrong as . . . interesting, or the even more disparaging, quite interesting.

Between them, as referee, and at times Greek chorus, is Margrethe Bohr, played much as an observer by Haydn Gwynne. She watches and comments from the sidelines as the two giants of physics spar.

A little like Groundhog Day, we find Heisenberg’s arrival repeated over and over again, each time with a different scenario, we jump to later meetings, then back to the arrival, all exploring the possibilities.

Through it all ran a thread, not a theory, but a known daily remembered fact, even though it was a thought that was never spoken about, the death of Bohr’s eldest of his six sons, Christian, who died in a boating accident in 1934.

Did Heisenberg come to gloat, even to proudly announce that Germany was building an atomic bomb, or did he come to warn Bohr? He was to later claim that he never told the Nazis that the nuclear reactor he was working on would create plutonium, the core of the Fat Boy bomb that devastated Nagasaki, nor did the mathematician, who calculated everything, do the calculations for a uranium bomb, like the one that flattened Hiroshima, at least not with the precision needed to actually create one.

So, we are left with theories, first the arguments the pair had about the finer points of theoretical physics, of photons and electrons, waves and particles, then the varied scenarios from snatches of later conversations and writings of what was talked about, and finally, the battle with the moral dilemma of science in its purest form to enrich man’s understanding and existence being used to destroy life on a Biblical scale. Overlaid on that is the question of patriotism, however evil the regime, in Heisenberg’s case, that does not stop you from being German.

Michael Frayne is perhaps best known for the hilarious comedy Noises Off, but Copenhagen is no laughing matter. It has its occasional lighter moments, but this is heavy duty theatre, science, morals and politics all fighting for centre stage.

The set by Alex Eales is bare, a few chairs, a hat stand and a table and lamp, given interest using a revolve, with above a representation of a cyclotron, a particle accelerator for nuclear research. It is like a strangely ominous halo, highlighted with ghostly lighting by James Farncombe. Interest is added by music from sound designer Jon Nicholls which appears unobtrusively at telling moments.

It is beautifully acted, bringing life and interest into what could so easily have become a wordy marathon. Instead it is a detective story which gives you a host of suspects but will never be solved. Directed by Ella Howlett from an original direction by Polly Findlay this Theatre Royal Bath and Jonathan Church Theatre production runs to 10-07-21. 

Roger Clarke


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