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A CurtainUp LondonReview

by James Walters

My knowledge of the Second World War is second hand. It comes from relatives who lived through it, from lessons taught in the classroom and from the inescapable way that it still impinges upon life today. Over fifty years on we are still living in the shadow of the technological leaps made during that bloody six year period. Copenhagen deals with two of the men who were responsible in some way, shape or form for those advances.

The play centres around the relationship between the supreme German physicist Werner Heisenberg (Matthew Marsh) and his mentor Niels Bohr (David Burke). More than this, it tries to suggest answers to a question that has dogged the scientific world since the nineteen forties: Why did Heisenberg visit the half Jewish Bohr in Copenhagen in 1942? Many answers have been postulated over the years, but no one actually knows. Was he trying to influence Bohr in an attempt to persuade him to steer the Allies away from atomic weapons of mass destruction, or were his motives more sinister? Was Heisenberg himself trying to tease information from Bohr which would allow Hitler's Nazi regime to sweep through Europe on the back their own A-Bomb?

At first glance it is fair to say that Nuclear Physics might not be the most accessible topic for the theatre going public. However, it is at this point that Michael Frayn's frank and often witty dialogue triumphs. Indeed, he draws the audience into the subject of the piece with such theatrical ease that talk of sub-atomic particles and nuclear fission are wholly acceptable and, more importantly, recognisable aspects of a compelling story.

The relationship between the young, somewhat impetuous Heisenberg and the older, enigmatic Bohr is captured with marvellous clarity. The audience is held transfixed for two hours of total theatre. This achievement also owes much to Margrethe Bohr's (Sara Kestelman)contribution to the proceedings of She plays the lynch-pin, the steady rock to which these two minds were fastened -- the central nucleus of an atom containing two frantic and constantly colliding electrons. Her questioning keeps the dialogue within the realm of the layman and prevents it from soaring off into the clouds of highbrow science.

Copenhagen is a theatrical spectacle that benefits from simple yet amazingly versatile staging by Peter J. Davison. His work gives the actors scope to indulge in the great art of storytelling. A basic circular wooden staging, flanked at the rear by thirty or so raised seats, gives the performance the feel of being played in a lecture theatre. It also achieves the almost impossible in turning the Duchess into an intimate theatre in the round.

Overall, the production is a theatrical masterpiece. It engages the audience on every level and doesn't let go from beginning to end. It will be hard to find an equal in London before the end of this century.

By Michael Frayn
Directed by Michael Blakemore
With Sara Kestelman, David Burke, Matthew Marsh
Set Design: Peter J Davison
Lighting Design Mark Henderson
Sound Design: Simon Barker
The Duchess Theatre, Catherine Street, London WC2 Tel. 0171 494 5075
From 02/05/99 Onwards
Reviewed by James Walters based on 3/16 performance

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