I hated science and maths at school. I couldn’t tell one end of a quadratic equation from the other, and physics? Hopeless.
So I was as baffled as anyone to explain why I was on the edge of my seat and engrossed by the inner workings of quantum engineering, astrophysics and nuclear fission as explained in Michael Frayn’s extraordinary, award-winning Copenhagen which has been revived by Chichester Festival Theatre.
I know no more about splitting the atom as I do about peeling an artichoke yet his 1998 play, about Armageddon and the arms race in Europe during WWII, is riveting.
I’m full of admiration for Charles Edwards, Paul Jesson and Patricia Hodge whose lines in this very wordy play are packed to the rafters with a huge amount of very technical jargon which is all delivered at speed.
There were a few opening night jitters at yesterday’s press night in the Minerva Theatre – and no wonder – but full marks to Frayn, director Michael Blakemore and the cast for making the impossible sound so fascinating and terrifying in equal measure.
Frayn did a tremendous amount of research for Copenhagen, it oozes out of every line, yet the nuclear core of the plot is fictitious, as much as anything about once living, factual, people who knew, socialised and worked with each other, can be.
I’m shamefully ignorant about these three characters – blame my comprehensive education and aversion to science – so I was approaching the entire story with fresh eyes.
This is a pared down production – in extremis. Three actors, two in rather smart grey suits and Hodge (who obviously got the short straw), in dowdy, severe 1940s tailoring; three silver chairs and an empty stage. That’s it.
Occasionally there is a video backcloth which I thought rather superfluous until three-quarters of the way through and the screen dropped a bombshell moment which sent a shiver through my entire body.
Edwards plays Werner Heisenberg, a German theoretical physicist and one of the key pioneers of quantum mechanics (I can see your eyes beginning to glaze over – stick with me) who was charged by “that homicidal maniac”, Adolph Hitler to pursue the creation of an atom bomb.
In Frayn’s story Heisenberg visits his mentor and friend, Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his wife Margrethe, in Copenhagen but the meeting ends suddenly and not satisfactorily, for either side.
“But why did he come?” asks Margrethe. That’s the poser. Was he fishing, trying to find out how far along the world’s other scientists were or was he warning his friends about Hitler’s horrifying, unimaginable intentions? What did he want?
The three are long dead and appear, initially as grey as their costumes, to relive that night.
Margrethe acts as occasional narrator and inquisitor, demanding to know and understand what went on when her husband and his former brilliant, young, precocious student, went off walking and talking into the night.
Over two-and-a half hours we are thrust into the nucleus of the atomic debate with theory, mechanics, maths and science bombarding the audience every step of the way.
Yet it doesn’t matter if you’re lost in the first five minutes. The passion, particularly from Edwards’ patriotic Heisenberg, is infectious. His furious parrying with Jesson’s Bohr, both believing they have the answers, neither recollecting the night in exact detail, is enthralling.
Charles Edwards gives an impeccable performance as a man caught between a rock and a hard place. Heisenberg, so Frayn alludes, deliberately stalled his work into nuclear fission for fear of the consequences, yet had he been capable of achieving the result anyway?
“Bohr and Heisenberg were both tough, hard-nosed, uncompromising and indefatigable,” said Bohr’s assistant Hendrik Krammars, according to the programme.
Arrogant, flawed, impassioned Heisenberg refuses to accept – even from “The Pope” of physics, Bohr – that his research was not only unsound but dangerous – and the trio relive that fateful night again and again trying to unlock its secrets.
Jesson, paternal and statesmanlike, is a perfect nemesis to the hotheaded Hesienberg while Hodge spends most of the time an outsider to the furious debating by the two men.
I still know next to nothing about Quantum Theory, The Copenhagen Interpretation or the Uncertainty Principle – and, thankfully, you don’t need to as there’s a handy venn diagram in the programme notes (phew, thank god I hear you all sigh).
But Frayn and Blakemore, who directed the original production at the National Theatre, has done the impossible and made science not only interesting but utterly irresistible in this brilliant revival.
And perhaps we need a lesson or two in where it all began, to scare the bejesus out of us, especially at a time when the world is still threatened by nuclear annihilation from homicidal maniacs.
Copenhagen runs at the Minerva Theatre until September 22.
Michael Blakemore delivers an enthralling revival of Michael Frayn’s atomic drama, Copenhagen, that is superbly acted, riveting and terrifying in equal measure.