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Copenhagen (Susan Elkin reviews)

Chichester Festival Theatre, Minerva

Four stars: ****

Yes, it’s a fine, thoughtful script for intelligent grown-ups but the most striking thing about this revival of Michael Frayn’s 1998 play is the stunning quality of the acting.

A three hander with all three characters on stage throughout, this play gives a smaller speaking part to Patricia Hodge than those of her two male colleagues (Charles Edwards and Paul Jesson). Yet, Hodge can communicate more by shifting one knee, refolding her hands or swivelling her eyes than many actors can manage in a paragraph-long speech. Her evident listening, reacting and visible thinking is masterly. Every drama student should see this.

Neils Bohr, a Dane (Jesson) was the world’s pre-eminent physicist before the second world war. A quasi Pope of the international world of physics he was flanked by younger “cardinals” who became friends. Werner Heisenberger, a German (Edwards) was one of them. The war changed things as physicists on all sides began to wonder whether the energy released by splitting the atom could be used to create devastating weapons. In 1941 Heisenberger visted Bohr who was living with his wife and children in what was, by then, enemy occupied Denmark. Their meetings, the reasons for them and what was said have been the subject of speculation ever since.

Played on Peter J Davison’s spare, empty set with plain grey tiled floor and three white chairs Copenhagen playfully suggests that now the three of them are long dead they can get together again to thrash out what actually happened in 1941 and why.

Hodge, in a grey 1930s suit with big clumpy shoes, as Bohr’s eloquent, knowing, cynical, accurate – and loving – wife acts as listener and sometimes narrator as several versions of the conversations are replayed. Jesson and Edwards play beautifully off each other as they spar, reminisce, shout in exasperation (“Mathematics IS sense. That’s what sense is!” declares Heisenberger furiously at one point) and yet regard each other with underlying affection and respect despite their finding themselves on opposite sides in 1941. “Physics not politics” they say several times but of course, in this context, they’re the same thing.

It’s a rare treat to see three actors at the top of their game working with such high quality material. Catch it if you can.

First published by Sardines:

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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