Copenhagen is an elegant production that might change how you think about quantum physics.
After their deaths, the scientists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, and Bohr’s wife Margrethe, meet in some kind of afterlife to discuss a real event: Heisenberg’s visit to Bohr, his friend and mentor, at Copenhagen in 1941. The central question: Why did he go there?
Heisenberg, played by Sean Young, was German, while Bohr, Justin Moir, was half-Jewish and living under Nazi occupation. The play explores the interactions between science and politics, and what happens when theoretical physics is put into terrible practice.
Rounding out the trio is Bohr’s wife Margrethe, played by Ana Matisse Donefer-Hickie. Donefer-Hickie skillfully conveys Margrethe’s suspicion of Heisenberg and protectiveness towards her husband. As Heisenberg, Young is clean-shaven and more casually dressed than Moir, suitable to Heisenberg’s youthfulness and energy. Young gained momentum over the course of the first act, leading into an emotional speech on Heisenberg’s experience living in Germany before and during the war. Moir’s Bohr is clearly older and perhaps wiser than Heisenberg, and Moir delivers his lines with a natural rhythm and gentleness.
It is a difficult play to pull off, with a small cast whose lines follow one upon the other quite rapidly. While a little hesitant at the beginning, the actors soon found a rhythm that carried them through the rest of the play.
The set design is effective. Director Haritha Popuri leaves the middle section of the KTS Red Room open, allowing more space for the actors and a wider perspective for the audience. On the floor in the centre of the stage, a set of concentric circles made of words written in chalk form the shape of an atom. The words are apparently from a real letter written by Bohr to Heisenberg, and are the most eye-catching feature of the set.
Two white sheets hang between the black curtains and at various times the actors step behind these and speak as silhouettes. While a clever idea, the shadows would have been more effective were they not distorted. Otherwise, Alex Bryant’s lighting design is ingenious, reflecting what the characters are discussing. The play’s central prop pulls off a similar effect — a silver ball stands for an electron, illuminating different viewpoints as the actors pass it between them.
Copenhagen teaches the audience about science, but more so about the place of science within people’s lives. Those who are familiar with the findings of Heisenberg and Bohr will likely be amused by how the play picks these concepts apart and uses them in new and surprising ways.