Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen


Mindy Pedlar (Margrethe Bohr); Lucien Leutzinger (Werner Heisenberg); and Brian Spencer (Niels Bohr) in Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. Photo: janamarcus.com

By Philip Pearce

SEETheatre, a Santa Cruz production company I hadn’t met until last weekend, is presenting a clear, powerful and impressive production of Michael Frayne’s Copenhagen in the new Tannery Arts Center on River Street last weekend.

It’s offered under less than ideal theatrical conditions. In a space at the bright and raffish Radius Art Gallery, abstract sculptures have been shoved into corners to accommodate eight or ten rows of spectators on folding chairs. It’s a prize-winning script but it makes massive demands on both its players and its audience, who must deal with highly complicated ideas offered on a stage level with spectator seating, so you watch through the heads of whoever is in the rows directly in front of you. Too often a cue either for effective acting but shoddy direction or vice versa, this version’s director also plays a lead role.

SEETheatre doesn’t just meet these formidable challenges; it transcends them in a beautifully acted and imaginatively directed piece of modern theater.

The play centers in three key figures from the history of World War Two nuclear physics. There’s thoughtful and cautious Danish physicist Niels Bohr, there’s his sharp-witted and perceptive wife Margrethe, and there’s his impetuous German ex-pupil and lifelong admirer Werner Heisenberg. The play is about the visit Heisenberg paid to the Bohrs in Copenhagen in 1941. Part Jewish, Bohr lives in a Danish homeland now occupied by Hitler’s Third Reich. Heisenberg meanwhile has become a key figure in Nazi research efforts to create a nuclear bomb. Despite underlying political tensions, their visit starts amicably enough. The two men decide to set out, as they have done so many times in the past, on an evening walk. Leaving Bohr’s wife behind, they set out as reunited friends and return a quarter of an hour later tight- lipped and mysteriously estranged.

As Bohr, Brian Spencer is all wisdom, tact and fatherly concern, even for the brilliant younger colleague who is still a personal surrogate son but now also a political enemy. Spencer’s wry dignity and benign caution make all the more poignant his oppressed and unexplained rage as he and Heisenberg return from their brief outing.

Why Heisenberg has chosen to visit Copenhagen at this exact moment and what has happened on this walk with Bohr are the focus of everything else we see and hear for the rest of the evening. Was Heisenberg, as he argues, trying to sound out Bohr on the subject of Allied atomic research in the hopes of preventing any possibility of nuclear war—or, as Bohr argues, is he probing for information to counteract a lag in Nazi efforts to produce a nuclear bomb—or is it, as Margrethe caustically suggests, that he has come simply to strut his stuff as a German scientific Wunderkind? Or maybe all three?
I was at first concerned that Lucien Leutzinger’s use of a German accent as Heisenberg might mean gimmickry or inaudibility. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The accent, which he does with effortless flexibility, marks him off as a provocative and puzzling outsider and contrasts excitingly with Spencer’s stability. He’s a dynamic chameleon whose moods and attitudes we can never anticipate. It’s a piece of brilliant characterization. Margrethe Bohr knows whereof she speaks when she says that Werner has spearheaded the well-known Uncertainty Principle because he has always lived it. When the scientific pair taunt her with always trying to make their conflicting abstractions personal, she snaps back that “everything is personal.” Played with charm and directness by the delightful Mindy Pedlar, Margrethe is our gateway to the dazzling but often dizzyingly abstruse world of Niels and Werner.

Spencer’s direction is astute and unobtrusive. It echoes Michael Frayn’s use of scientific metaphors for the complicated thoughts and actions of these three extraordinary people. The script offers no specific time nor physical setting. Niels, Margrethe and Werner reflect, speculate and argue about the crucial visit at moments that shift seamlessly from the first meeting of the two physicists in the 1920s, to the evening of Heisenberg’s visit in 1941, to no time period at all. They speak sometimes to one another in dramatic situations, sometimes (particularly Margrethe) directly to the audience, at other times voicing thoughts and questions from within their own private worlds. Spencer’s direction distinguishes these complex shifts of mode and mood with clarity and skill.

At the end of the evening, the opening night audience stood and cheered the cast of three not just for making an amazing effort but for doing it with such energy and conviction