sovay: (Cho Hakkai: intelligence)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2015-01-24 03:50 am

And over goes the tiller once again

The Porpentine Players' production of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen is nearly three hours long and worth every minute.

The traditional staging of Copenhagen is a black box in the round with a circle inlaid or projected onto the floor: the orbit of an electron, the radius of an atomic blast, the charmed and shifting space within which the three protagonists exist after death, colliding with one another and their own memories, gaps, and conjectures. It's abstract, mathematical, indeterminate. The characters mesh through layers of time—1941, 1924, 1934, 1947, the everywhere and nowhere of the afterlife. So, at the Nave Gallery, do their surroundings. The space itself recalls a classroom, with six-over-one windows and brass fittings on the doors. There are photographs of physicists, the sleet-tracks of alpha particles through a cloud chamber, the interference patterns of electrons in the double-slit experiment, Hiroshima after the bomb. A lamp, a radio. Margrethe's desk, where she copied out draft after draft of her husband's papers on their way to publication. A map of Europe hangs on the wall—German, displaying the extent of the Reich in 1941. There is a blackboard. Equations are written on it. They're the right equations.

This matters, because Michael Frayn's play treats its science seriously. Too many narratives about scientists don't—they make mathematics the metaphor, a theory or a hypothesis the organizing principle of a person's emotional life. (I have some offenders in mind. Certain recent films among them. Please feel free to supply your own.) The quantum mechanics and nuclear physics in Copenhagen are real; they are beautiful and irresistible and terrifying and they don't come out of nowhere in miraculous, muse-gifted flashes, they are the product of experimentation and argument and thinking and silence and fear and necessity and the breathtaking rapidity with which the implications of an arrangement of numbers become an inevitability that cannot be ignored. So the actors playing Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg have to convince as brilliant physicists and not in some shorthand way that assumes we all know how geniuses talk. (Yes, certain recent film, I'm still looking at you! You're like the abyss that way.) They are puzzling out an intellectual and a human problem: the mystery of Heisenberg's visit to his old mentor in Copenhagen in 1941; what the two of them said to one another in the dark of their walk together; what Heisenberg wanted from the meeting and whether he got it, now that the dead have nothing left to hide. That is not at all the same as saying that nothing is hidden.

I imprinted on John Kuntz's Heisenberg at the ART in 2008. I have him described on LJ as "tightly mannered and fractured in glimpses between rapid-fire confidence and awkward concession, not innocent; even in the shadowy afterworld in which the play takes place, still passionate and still in pain." I can still see him, with his spiky hair and his hands tightly closed at his sides. Nonetheless, I think Ron Lacey's Heisenberg is the one I will return to. He is visibly more fragile: visibly more arrogant, too. His hands are full of nervous mannerisms; he has a trick of folding himself into a chair so that his body becomes a concentric twist of angles, gauche as the eager schoolboy he (for better or worse) so often resembles, but he uncoils, whip-spined, as soon as he's challenged. In a play full of confrontations and evasions, the angriest we see him is the moment he's told he couldn't do the math. Lacey's gift for mime comes in beautifully handy, too, in Heisenberg's snapshot monologues of the war, shoes stuck with burning phosphorus after an air-raid in Berlin, empty hands raised before an officer's pistol in the hopeless May night. His voice is always very precise. But this production remembers that just because Heisenberg is the personification of uncertainty does not mean that Bohr is all open to view; as played by Floyd Richardson, he is almost instinctively professorial, paternal, a tall well-suited man with an encouraging, informal voice, but anger rasps in it as Heisenberg stumbles tactlessly through the politics of occupation or they clash yet again over the principle of complementarity, and his drive for a line of argument is relentless. Several times he is close to tears, confounded by a loss he thought he had accepted in 1938. (An earlier loss echoes throughout, recurring with the frozen hopelessness of a dream: Christian reaches for the lifebuoy. A gulf opens up beneath the conversation every time.) He is prickly. Heisenberg is thin-skinned. They cannot but wound one another, especially now that the gloves of their lives are off.

And then there is Margrethe Nørlund Bohr, the third particle colliding in the void. I have always appreciated the play's handling of her, because she is neither the admiring audience stand-in or the walk-on helpmeet of so many women in stories of men and science; she was her husband's partner in thought and life, his constant sounding board and in many ways his closest collaborator, and as many times as the men remind one another to explain the nicer points of their mathematics in plain language for Margrethe, the script never forgets that she understands the physics as well as they do. She broadsides Heisenberg with quantum mechanics: the ruthless application of his theories to his behavior. As her husband and her "clever son" test and examine their lives like the internal workings of the atom, she is far from a dispassionate observer. Bohr likes a neat arc of story, Heisenberg thrives on indeterminacy; Margrethe insists on the messiness, the broken angles and mixed motives, the fact that no human action is without its personal element, because neither people nor ideas exist in antiseptic vacuum. Especially because of her contrarian role, she cannot be a merely reactive character, and Ann Carpenter gives her a world-weary forthrightness that can spring startlingly into fury and deep, nearly unspeakable affection. Sometimes she leaves the two men onstage and goes to read letters at her desk, her very absence its own opinion. The play could have been a two-hander, but it would have been a lot less interesting.

There is little music or other sound design in the play, but the few times it is used are effective. It was distracting that the heat came on halfway through the second act, but I feel that after the total failure of insulation that was the late and angrily lamented Factory Theatre, I should be glad there's heat in the building at all. The costume is casually period, no more fixed to a particular year than the set; nobody uses any accent but their own, but care is taken with non-English names. The three-quarter staging mostly works very well. Seated stage left, we saw occasionally slightly too much of Ron Lacey's shoulders, but they were very eloquent. You can always hear the dialogue, which counts.

So, look at that. The play just opened this weekend and I'm recommending it; plenty of time to get tickets before the end of the month. I am biased toward the Nave because it's ten minutes' walk from my house, but it's a good space for this play and I hope it heralds at least a partial home for future Porpentine productions. And more science plays where I can see them. There should always be more.

There's no mystery about it.

[identity profile] 2015-01-24 09:06 am (UTC)(link)
Oh, that sounds fabulous!

gwynnega: (Default)

[personal profile] gwynnega 2015-01-25 02:38 am (UTC)(link)
That sounds amazing!

[identity profile] 2015-01-25 05:25 pm (UTC)(link)
Yes, this is the show I saw...just breathtaking!

[identity profile] 2015-01-27 04:21 am (UTC)(link)
The quantum mechanics and nuclear physics in Copenhagen are real; they are beautiful and irresistible and terrifying and they don't come out of nowhere in miraculous, muse-gifted flashes, they are the product of experimentation and argument and thinking and silence and fear and necessity

Wow, that's very impressive, not least because it means Michael Frayne must have a fair amount of math and science under his belt.