Fri, 18th October 2019

Copenhagen: St Andrews - A Review

Text by: 

Georgina Johnson

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Copenhagen: St Andrews comprises of a discussion between two leading physicists Werner Heisenberg a carefree energetic protégé (Georgie Turner) and his wise, steady mentor and friend Niels Bohr (Anoushka Kholi). Magrethe, Borh’s wife, (Georgia Luckhurst) bears witness to this debate and provides a more human perspective, guiding the audience to access the information onstage more easily. She acts as an everyman figure, demonstrating what it means to live in the wake of the ambitious intellectual.

The play, written by Michael Frayn, is fragmentary, and takes place after the death of the three characters. The entire plot centres on the memory of a specific mysteriously important event: why Heisenberg visited the Bohrs in Copenhagen in 1941 from Nazi Germany. This post-mortem discussion leads the characters to debate and hypothesize, in a cyclical way, over the events of their lives, through their connection to each other and that visit.

Different interpretations of that night take place throughout the play, with both past and future digressions slowly revealing the complex relations the characters have to each other and their place in the global discourse of war, morality and science. The audience slowly comes to realize, through the changing perspectives, the significance of the event in 1941 and the choices made by the two physicists.

The play was performed by an all-female cast. The magnetic depiction of the central character Heisenberg, grounded characterization of the older Bohr, and passionate and authoritative portrayal of Magrethe, knit together well to create a coherent, complex whole.

Conceptually the play is hard to ‘put into a box’: it defies explanation, and its layered material is fitting for the stage. The production dealt with a kaleidoscope of themes and ideas: from accidental duels with cap-pistols and skiing, to complicity in genocide and the delicate line between discovery and destruction. The motifs were presented effectively, with changes in music and lighting being repeated through the performance to signal the return to a theme or emotion, guiding the audience’s experience.

Our attention was maintained by varied choreography and movement (the space round the audience was used as an extension of the stage), which meant that the audience didn’t get lost or distracted in the, sometimes obscure and mentally stimulating dialogue.

However, it was hard to keep up with the weighty subject matter at times: genocide, theoretical physics, friendship gone awry, loyalty to your country over loyalty to humanity. There were moments where the heaviness of the topics and their complexity (such as the discussion of equations for the fission of uranium isotopes) made it easy to be pulled out of the action on stage, or get confused, and zone out. In some moments it felt as though an interest in theoretical physics was required to enjoy or understand what was happening onstage. But the use of music, choreography, and lighting served to break up the discussion into more digestible pieces.

Whilst being framed around a conversation between three characters, the play sustained a high energy and emotional involvement. The actors engaged with the audience confidently and communicated the gravity of their dialogue with emotional force, making the play simultaneously universal and extremely personal.

Copenhagen: St Andrews hit the right notes and, to my great surprise, managed make physics somewhat compelling.

Copenhahen: St Andrews was directed by Benji Osugo and performed at vthe StAge in St Andrews on the 14th and 15th October, with special permission from SAMUELFRENCHLTD a concord theatrical company. More information can be found on their page: