Copenhagen ****

Copenhagen is the type of play that is rare to find in new work.  It is a literate script that is far more concerned with words and their meaning than it is with physical action or plot twists, and yet it doesn’t forsake character or dramatic tension.

Set in a purgatory-like environment, three deceased people try to make logical sense of an important shared event in their lives.  The people in question are famed German scientist Werner Heisenberg, his mentor and friend Neils Bohr and Margrethe Bohr, Neils’s wife and confidant; the event that is being scrutinised is a controversial conversation between Heisenberg and Bohr that occurred in German-occupied Copenhagen in 1941 that just may have determined the outcome of the Second World War and the use of nuclear technology.  Every angle and possible meaning of the meeting is questioned, dissected, analysed and interpreted equally by the three characters.

Ironically, the play’s greatest strength is also its very weakness: its intellectualism.  Michael Frayn’s script is an excellent example of what is meant by the ‘well-written play’, meaning that the words are key and that it would probably be as effective on the radio as it is on stage.  This is a very smart play that throws scientific theories and terminology around and doesn’t bother to over-explain difficult concepts.  This is a good thing if one is happy to think and figure things out while observing the dramatic action, but those that like having things set out for them, or those who have a fear or suspicion of scientific thought, will feel isolated.

All three actors are excellent, turning in performances that are well-polished and passionate.  It is easy to sympathise with and care about each character at some point.  Owen Oakeshott’s Heisenberg is a young man desperate to be both understood and vindicated.  Tom Mannion’s Bohr is a father figure who demands facts and details and questions every aspect of Heisenberg’s arguments.  Sally Edwards’s Marhrethe is the voice of reason, playing both devil’s advocate and arbiter to the argument.

Director Tony Cownie has the difficult task of dramatising a two and a half hour intellectual debate and manages well.  The blocking is well balanced, highlighting the constantly fluxing power struggle between the three characters, and the words are all well paced.  The design concept is simple yet effective.

Intellectual plays are becoming rare in theatre, which is a shame because, as Copenhagen proves, an intelligent debate can make for intriguing, and rewarding, theatre.  It’s not afraid to be smart, and it manages to pose some rather fascinating points.

Performing at The Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh until May 9, 2009.

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