By RACHEL ROSEFIGURA
A Review of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen
Scientific discoveries are hailed as advances for humankind, yet they often are accompanied by an expansion in the human potential for destruction. Perhaps the best example of this historically was the invention of the atomic bomb during World War II. Michael Fayn’s Copenhagen grapples with the moral implications of scientific advancements through a fictional account of the meeting between two scientific greats in Copenhagen in 1941.
The play follows the scientists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, two of the most prominent theoretical physicists of the twentieth century. Bohr is a Jew in occupied Denmark. Heisenberg is torn between a brutal regime he does not support and the menace of the Americans bombing Germany or the Soviet empire spreading across Europe should the Germans be defeated. Bohr is unconvinced that nuclear fission can be weaponized, but his protégé Heisenberg comes to Copenhagen bearing the idea that the bomb is possible. In the play, Heisenberg states: “… there are only two things the world remembers about me. One is the uncertainty principle, the other is my mysterious visit to Niels Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941.” The play explores possible explanations for the strange visit: did Heisenberg want to ask Bohr for moral guidance? Did he want Bohr’s scientific help? Did he want to know whether the Americans were working on the bomb, or did he visit Bohr to ask him to convince the Americans not to nuclearize? Ultimately, the play is not a look back into history, it is a look forward towards the increasingly complex moral dilemmas faced by science.
Julian Lopez-Morillas is grand as Niels Bohr. He is believable as the father of theoretical physics, possessed of such dignitas that he was known as “the Pope” while also being a sympathetic, human character. Peter Ruocco is flawless, from his delivery to his uncanny resemblance to the real Heisenberg. Some schools of thought hold that in theater, accents should be subtle, suggested rather than truly attempted. However, Ruocco does a brilliant job keeping a consistent accent that never interferes with the clarity of his enunciation. It would be easy to make Heisenberg an immensely unlikable character: he was an academic egoist who possibly intended to give the Third Reich the atomic bomb. While Frayn’s writing is highly unbiased and explores multiple possibilities, Ruocco creates a character so sympathetic that it seems reasonable that he should have continued working on making a reactor for the Germans.
However, it is Courtney Walsh who takes on the most challenging character in the play. She plays Margrethe, wife of Niels Bohr. At face value, her character is the least important in this intense look into two great scientists’ minds. However, the character of Margrethe is tasked with making this play engaging and keeping it from devolving into theoretical physics on a bare stage. She is a vital addition to the play: while her character is not necessary to the plot, she humanizes the interaction between two brilliant scientists. She reacts as an audience member might, pointing out the humor, calling attention to moral questions and steering the play in interesting directions that transcend a focus on either science or philosophy exclusively.
There is an incredible energy in the production. The set is minimal, four chairs and a couch. However, this minimal set, as well as fantastic lighting designed by Michael Ramsaur, set the actors off to their best advantage. Bohr paces, Heisenberg stands on chairs, they collide in an enactment of neutrons and protons during fission. Often, the two scientists would step far downstage to engage more directly with the audience. While the nature of Walsh’s character denied her some of the more animated uses of the stage employed by Lopez-Morillas and Ruocco, she stayed dynamic. Even when the role required her to spend great swathes of time watching the other two actors play out history, she never broke character. She remained the actress even as she embodied the audience. Bohr may be the Pope, and Einstein God in the world of theoretical physics, but Margrethe is history: she is the audience to history as it occurred and she is audience to the play. Her judgment is never delivered: as is made plain, one cannot observe something without affecting it, and that alone is a reminder to us that as we think about, replay, and record history we change it.
Rachel RoseFigura is a junior majoring in BioEngineering. She is from Anchorage, Alaska, and enjoys theater, painting and policy debate.