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Gone Fission

"Copenhagen" imagines Heisenberg's 1941 visit with Niels Bohr, but it's as hard to crack as quantum physics.

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Manhattan project: Michael Cumpsty, Blair Brown, and Philip Bosco at the nucleus of Copenhagen.  

Plays such as benefactors, a shattering drama, and Noises Off, an incomparable farce -- not to mention the dazzling novel Headlong -- have established Michael Frayn as a major writer. So it is with infinite regret that I must confess to finding his current Copenhagen more admirable than compelling, more awesome than satisfying. Copenhagen is both a rare and sorely needed political play and an even rarer, and potentially deeper, play of ideas. The question of what might have happened had Hitler possessed the atom bomb, and the roles of the Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his German disciple Werner Heisenberg in the Allies' having it and the Nazis not, are matters of uncommon interest. Why Heisenberg sought out in occupied Denmark his former master and later partner in quantum mechanics, uncertainty principle, complementarity theory, particle physics, and atomic fission is certainly of political, historical, moral, and philosophical interest, lacking only, at least as presented here, in dramatic interest.

To me, at any rate -- who already as a student cared little for math and not a particle about physics (though I loved the Latin hexameters of Lucretius on the nature of things) -- all this talk about atoms and electrons, photons and neutrons, uranium and plutonium, fission and heavy water is heavy going. My awe at Frayn's exhaustive research into a hermetic field (his background is in philosophy), his effort to penetrate the mystery of a historic meeting on which so much may have hinged but about which we know so little, and his noble attempt at a parallel (perhaps even connection) between the enigmatic behaviors of particles and human beings is nothing short of boundless. Alas, respect is not tantamount to absorption.

Which is not to say that much about Copenhagen is not provocative and watchable. Take Peter J. Davison's design and Mark Henderson and Michael Lincoln's lighting. Take Michael Blakemore's direction, which goes as far as conceivable in humanizing abstraction, in embodying the near-disembodied. Philip Bosco as Bohr, Blair Brown as Mrs. Bohr (personifying the enlightened non-scientist's and patriotic Dane's views), and Michael Cumpsty as Heisenberg perform wonders in nudging ideas toward palpable life. Observing the actors' way with such difficult memorization and tricky interplay is no mean spectacle.

Ultimately, though, I prefer Friedrich Dürrenmatt's handling of much the same topic in The Physicists, either in the acting version of 1960 or in the revised, more literary version of 1980. Not that this quasi-absurdist play was any more flesh-and-blood than Frayn's; it was, however, more accessible and theatrical.


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