“Copenhagen”: Theatre Review

Occasionally, instead of a light-hearted evening of theatre, one gets a  powerful, thought-provoking play to watch. My friend Shangon and I braved the rain to go and watch Michael Freyn’s play, “Copenhagen” which was being produced by Centre for Film and Drama. I had not read up about the play, or watched it before.

There can be no better synopsis than the online one that Ranga Shankara has on its online schedule:

“Frayn’s play, Copenhagen, speculates what might have transpired during a meeting between Nobel laureates Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in Copenhagen in September 1941, at the height of the German advance into Russia and just three months before America’s entry into the war. The power of National Socialist Germany was at its pinnacle, and the Germans had just been made aware, through Swedish sources, of U.S. plans to build an atomic bomb.

“The meeting was at Heisenberg’s behest. As Germany’s leading theoretical physicist and head of the German Uranium Club, the organ which would assess the possible war uses of nuclear energy, he was the man best situated to advise his government on the creation of an atomic bomb. The older Bohr was not only a professional colleague of Heisenberg, but a close personal friend as well. The play ponders the possible reasons for Heisenberg’s visit, linking them to the failure of the Germans to develop the bomb.”

That, however, only scratches the surface of the play. The interplay of physics and politics, as the once-close relationship between Bohr and his protegee,Heisenberg, is riven by the fact of the Third Reich occupying Denmark, the awkwardness and then the thawing when the two meet in 1941, the incisive commentary on their relationship and interaction by Margerethe, and the interplay of the men’s avatars as scientists and human beings, with guilt, power, affection, ego, and far-seeing vision playing their various parts in that fateful lunch and its aftermath….all these made for a very powerful play indeed.

Such an intense and powerful them needs great ability to handle it well and carry it off. And to the audience’s great satisfaction, that is what happened at Ranga Shankara. Prakash Belawadi, a seasoned craftsman of  the theatre, made it a very memorable production.

Another tough task that he accomplished was directing the play, while assaying the role of Niels Bohr….the essentially good human being, a brilliant scientist, who may not like being challenged by a younger man but yet opens his mind to that man’s theories and his heart to his affection; a man who is in the happy position of being married to a wife who understands not only his human emotions,his motives and his worries, but also the path-breaking scientific theories and concepts he propounds. A father who loses (at least) one son to a tragic accident (which “cannot be talked about”), and who treats Heisenberg like a son, and does not lose that closeness, even when their nationalities (invading German, and invaded Dane)  pit them against each other as perceived “enemies”.

Nakul Bhalla was Werner Heisenberg; the young 22-year-old brilliant scientist who proved that some of Bohr’s thinking was wrong,and then worked closely with him, and several other leading lights in theoretical Physics, across the world (including several Jews, much to the consternation of the Nazi regime) from 1922 to 1927. The politics of why he was passed over for the Chair in Physics at Munich,and given the Chair only at Leipzig, is subsumed by the politics of why he asks to meet Bohr in Copenhagen. “Mathematics can be odd when you apply it to people,” says Heisenberg at one point.

Sharanya Ramprakash, whose histrionic and theatre talent I have had occasion to praise in my review of Dramanon’s production of “This” showed her mettle once again. As the extremely intelligent, observant and articulate Margerethe, she turned in a powerhouse performance. Margarethe has seen the relationship between her husband and Heisenberg flower,even as she brings up their children, and loses a son; she types out all of Bohr’s work, and shows a clear understanding, not only of the work itself, but how it was achieved, either by both men working together, or apart. Her ironic looks were as speaking as her commentary when both men take each other’s measure and get over the awkward business of meeting on “opposite sides of the fence” after several years apart.  

The lunch is over, and to escape the listening Nazi microphones, the two go for the kind of walk that they used to take in the good old days. Margerethe thinks that the walk may stretch to several hours, and is surprised when even as she clears the table, the men come back; it’s obvious that something Heisenberg has said has upset Bohr deeply.
The dialogue of the play is nothing short of brilliant; it incises each man’s thinking, his motivation, and the allegory of the atom and its particles, that is the basis of quantum physics, is used tellingly to descibe several situations. When the men go out for a walk, Margerethe says that “particles behave strangely when unobserved.”
It cannot be easy for actors to memorize such technically-oriented, and also long-passage, dialogues. Yet these three thespians delivered the dialogue with almost no lapses and the couple of times it seemed to have happened could have been ascribed to the intense emotion of the moment. The emotions were as well portrayed as the words were delivered. Sharanya’s mobile, expressive face showing the gamut of emotions, Nakul’s spare visage and sparkling eyes, and Prakash’s greying, mentor look and natural mien keeping up at every phrase.
The words that pass between the three, indeed, are quite a maze of expressions and emotions; by turn, affectionate, exasperated, strident and sad, the cast took the audience on a roller-coaster ride that showed how scientists are not just men of reason,but of emotion, too. Their intelligence shows them the possible repercussions of what they choose to show to their countrymen, and each tries to double-guess the other’s motives in saying or doing something.
When the break was announced, I felt that the climactic point had been reached, and I thought that the denouement would be swift. But no; there was more to come, and stormy emotion, the more pronounced for being suppressed, and honest analyses of the why? of what each person does or says, came through with telling effect. 
The leavening of humour was also well-done; the comic timing, the gestures, were perfect. As all well-played humour does in a serious play, it heightened the effect considerably. These were not only intelligent people we were watching, they were emotional ones too, and patriots: worried about what their actions would bring about in the nations they belonged to.
The central theme, of course, was fission, the fact that it was discovered to be possible, and that it was the Americans (with whom Bohr worked after he left Copenhagen) who developed it as a weapon of mass destruction, and not the Germans, under the stewardship of Heisenberg. The tears flowed down Margarethe’s cheeks as the play ended, and I found myself, too, swallowing a lump in my throat. Yes…the play did deal with “quantum ethics”….relativity, explained in philosophical terms.
It was this kind of powerful production that kept the reasonable (considering that it was a working day and a very rainy evening) house glued to the seats, and brought them up to a standing ovation at the end.
The lighting, initially, seemed not to matter too much, but that notion was quickly dispelled. Indeed, at one point, a strobe effect and beeps were used to mimic the shedding of light on the atomic particles; and as the play progressed, the light intensified the actors’ faces, until finally, the three faces were all that were visible.
The music, too, was understated, but effective, both as a background to the conversation, and sometimes by its very absence.
The stage design and setting was very simple. A table with three chairs, the crockery needed for lunch, a bench, a division of the stage that allowed the actors to enter the house, leave it, be outdoors, all without any scene change: it was very good design. Even the way the chairs were pulled near each other, or across each other, depending on the point of view of the characters agreeing or disagreeing, was a subtle touch of stage property management.
The costumes were simple, with just one change of attire after the break. i did wonder, in the humid auditorium, how Nakul could look cool and collected in a suit, overcoat, scarf, and heavy gloves! But one did tend to forget the costumes as the dramatic tension built up and was resolved.
There was, alas, no brochure given to the audience. And though the cast and crew were well-applauded, they were neither named nor introduced. I do feel that when an audience has sat watching a play for two and a half hours, they would certainly like to know who’s who. Not all of us are always familiar with every face in the theatre! In fact, having watched Sharanya up to now only in Dramanon productions, I spent the first few minutes wondering whether, indeed, it was her. Others, who might not be such regular theatre-goers, would not have known the cast…and I never got to hear the names of the crew, nor could I see them in a brochure.
Another inconvenience we seem to face on rainy days in Ranga Shankara is that the air-conditioner either does not work…or does not work well. On Sunday, a member of the audience had to switch of an extremely noisy fan, and we sort of sweltered through the play; during “Copenhagen”, the power of the performance still did not prevent us from feeling stuffy and ill-ventilated. Ranga Shankara…please ensure that the air-condtioning works well, especially when the humidity is high.
“Copenhagen” by Michael Freyn 
  • Produced by Centre for Film and Drama
  • Directed by Prakash Belawadi
  • Cast
    • Prakash Belawadi
    • Sharanya Ramprakash
    • Nakul Bhalla
  • The wiki entry about the original play is here

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