To be back in a theatre, for the first time this year, is a wonderful feeling. To be visiting a space you haven’t before is even better and to see an excellent cast perform an acclaimed play (that you are seeing for the first time) makes for a pretty much perfect day.
The new MAST Mayflower Studios space n Southampton (briefly known in pre-pandemic times as Nuffield In The City) is a perfect addition to the South Coast’s plethora of performing arts venues and will play host to a wide range of touring shows that simply wouldn’t resonate on the cavernous stage of her sister theatre a few minutes’ walk away.
It’s true of Copenhagen, a delicate three-hander play that demands intimacy with the audience, a sense of being drawn into the space rather than feeling remote from it. The play addresses a fateful meeting between the “pope of theoretical physics” Niels Bohr, his wife Margrethe and Bohr’s former protégé and the head of German nuclear research Werner Heisenberg. Echoing the fastidious manner in which Bohr revolutionised science in the early 20th Century we return again and again to the same night, the same conversation and are guided through reflections of it from different angles, seeing each character’s view but anchored, always, by Margrethe’s humanity.
Bohr, played perfectly by Malcolm Sinclair, bristles as his young friend – a person he loved as a son – reveals the work he is part of. Angry and ashamed by the way the Nazis have taken over Denmark, Niels reacts with fury when he realises Heisenberg is being tasked with creating nuclear weapons for Hitler. Bohr walks, aimlessly, almost frantically, through the space, orbiting the stage like an electron zipping around the nucleus of an atom.
The other side of the argument comes from Philip Arditti’s reasoned take on Heisenberg. As we look back at the war through his eyes it is clear that he sees his position as one of protector, ensuring through his laboured trials of a nuclear reactor, that the German appetite to develop atomic warheads is kept in check. He rushes to conclusions where Niels ponders, showing us the leaden-footed approach of experience against the recklessness of youth. When he finally realises that failing to do the maths may have been the only reason Germany didn’t get their hands-on nuclear armament there is relief, but also palpable frustration. He wants the credit but also the opportunity for the moral high ground.
Watching over all is the always excellent Haydn Gwynne. Margrethe is the conscience of the trio. She sees the flaws and the good in her husband and their ersatz family member. In the end it is she who forces them both to see that their positions at the centre of their respective universes mean they can take in all that happens in the world, but can never truly see their own actions. A simple observation that effortlessly brings us back to the central concepts of physics that their conversation is pinned upon.
If it sounds like a science lecture, you’d be forgiven. The early moments do feel like they’ve been lifted from a physics textbook, but the splitting of the atom, the discovering of uranium and of nuclear fission are all analogies for the inexorable change that could have been wrought from one man in Leipzig doing an equation or from his Danish mentor being more open to his protégé’s questions on the morals of atomic research.
The stage is simple, a wooden floor, a desk and a series of chairs. All caught in the glow of a ringed light that once more enforces the atom metaphor. Emma Howlett, directing based on Polly Findlay’s aborted pre-pandemic production, gives the actors space and time to build their performances.
If you’ve been starved of productions to make you think, this is an excellent way to ease yourself back into a stalls seat and re-engage your brain!
At Mast Mayflower Studios until 3rd July. For details visit https://www.mayflowerstudios.org.uk/what-s-on/copenhagen-2021/