BWW Reviews: COPENHAGEN, Lyceum, Sheffield 6 March 2012
Following last year's David Hare season, Sheffield Theatres is dedicating its spring season to the work of Michael Frayn, with three plays from across his career (Copenhagen, Benefactors and Democracy) playing across the three theatre sites.
The first, Copenhagen, is a three-handed piece centred around the visit in 1941 of German physicist Werner Heisenberg to the home of his former colleague, Niels Bohr, and Bohr's wife Margrethe. The play explores 'what really happened' at that meeting, through exploring multiple theories and recollections: a device that then allows Frayn to explore the huge themes of philosophy, physics, history, relationships and memory. A play about such huge and diverse concepts may not be an easy sell, but the cleverness and deftness of Frayn's writing means that everything is clearly explained, not in a patronising way, but in a way that amuses and involves the audience.
As someone who knows nothing at all about physics and very little history, it was difficult at first to get into the play, but after the first ten minutes or so of scene-setting, the script and the characters engross you and I came out having learned more about physics in one evening than I ever expected to know in one lifetime, a sentiment echoed by my theatre companion. I heard another theatregoer saying he felt he'd had 'a thorough brain work-out' as he left - and this was a compliment! Frayn clearly shows his research and skill with both his dialogue and the narrative direction of the play - although in places he perhaps overdoes this and the play could probably lose ten minutes from each act without you feeling you'd missed anything vital.
The three leads in the play, Henry Goodman (Bohr), Barbara Flynn (Margrethe) and Geoffrey Streatfeild (Heisenberg), do a wonderful job mastering very complicated and quick dialogue. The play is two and a half hours long (plus an interval) and all three are on stage continually. They also repeatedly shift between direct address to the audience, interaction with one another, the past and the present - tricky to accomplish, but they do so very well. Occasionally some of the dialogue is delivered perhaps a little too quickly but this is a minor quibble. The set is simple, but effective, with lighting that changes subtly throughout to reflect the mood. David Grindley's direction seems particularly strong in bringing out the characterisation, although the staging and movement is in some places a little static.
Although Copenhagen is perhaps not the easiest sell, it is worth investing an evening in for the sheer thrill of seeing both a playwright and three performers displaying remarkable skill - and perhaps, as I did, learning something about a subject you might have previously thought impenetrable.
Copenhagen is at the Lyceum, Sheffield until March 10.