By Jason Hagey and Alisha Hagey
Copenhagen, presented by Motley Wandering Minstrels in Salt Lake City, Utah, is a combination of historical fiction, psychological thriller, and a moral analysis. Michael Frayn’s Tony award-winning play probes the philosophical and ethical nature of studying atomic energy. Copenhagen was first opened at the Cottesloe Theatre, Royal National Theatre, London, on May 28, 1998. Frayn’s poetic prose invites his audience into the afterlife where three people (Margrethe Bohr, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg) discuss the implications of a mysterious meeting between the three of them in the eponymous Copenhagen (Bohr’s home) at the height of World War II. Bohr and Heisenberg were instrumental in the development of atomic physics – the same physics leading to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The stakes are high and we, as an audience, feel these stakes from the very moment the characters begin speaking. Though it appears our society is so far from these discussions (World War II being over now for more than 70 years), the implications inherent in their volatile conversation could not be more necessary than right now.
You may know the much-loved work of Michael Frayn, Noises Off, and his crazy comedic timing and his ability to manipulate time and iteration. Frayn takes this ability to a whole other level, a beautiful and powerful level of solemnity and potency. Motley Wandering Minstrels has done something truly ambitious. This is their first full production. And, like them, we hope that this is not their last.
Beth Bruner (Director and Producer) is brilliant in her decision to house this play in the James Fletcher Building – the physics building on University of Utah campus. This choice paid homage to the labs and study halls throughout the world where these thoughts and discussions have played out and continue to play.
Before the show began, I wandered the first floor of the theatrical space. You enter the building and there are posters up in marquees (all about science of course). A friendly man was there to greet you, and get you acclimated to where to go (as an aside, he is in a classical music group called Not Too Baroque to Tango that has a free performance for the public, Monday, April 16th, 7:30 PM at the First United Methodist Church 203 South 200 East Salt Lake City, Utah 84111). Back behind the lecture halls is a student space. There are tables and chairs all around. The focus of the room is the chalkboards up against the walls. You can imagine the discussions had, the thoughts made, the breakthroughs and the frustrations. Then you see the math. Unlike a set or a movie scene, this is the real deal. These are numbers in discussion and in transition. It is just as beautiful as lines being formed on a page, or a piece of art in creation. This is the setting, the context for the performance. This isn’t a traditional theatrical venue. This is special.
There is something that happens when entering a lecture hall with the desks all mounted to the raised floor in a semi-circle and accustomed tables that you can raise and put down to take notes on. It was familiar, like the chalk dust in the air and the smudges on the blackboards behind the lecture space. All that was missing was a professor in tweed to come out and discuss with us particle physics. Perhaps that is really what happens. Not the actual science of course, but looking at the poetry of physics and its relativity to daily life. This play is a mouthful. It is difficult to grasp, harder still to find concrete characters in the ambiguity of prose. Something about the performance space and its limitations actually lends itself to the gravity of the discussion. Our three actors immediately become experts. They use the confines to create barriers, they use the intimacy to foster relationships, they use each other to grapple with the uncertainty of the narrative, as a whole.
Copenhagen takes places in one small space for the entire play. The story circles around itself, rehashing and focusing on a discussion that took place between Bohr and Heisenberg in 1941. Together the characters attempt to figure out the meaning of this meeting, all while grappling with strong feelings, misgivings, muted and faded memories of times long past, and what might have transpired on a short walk outside of a home in occupied Denmark. They encircle each other like electrons in search of a nucleus. Copenhagen is not a morality tale. It isn’t a treatise on the ills of World War II or even on atomic weaponry. Rather it is an exploration of our humanity. Heisenberg says at one point, “We can’t see the electrons inside the atom.” Margrethe picks up and adds, “Any more than Niels can see the thoughts in your head, or you the thoughts in Niels’s.”
The show begins. Like mentioned, this play is wordy. It is a challenge to remember let alone to deliver with the fluidity and rapidity required to maintain the illusion of mastery of this complex science. Robin Edwards (Margrethe Bohr) begins first. She is followed by Richard Scharine (Niels Bohr). They come down the stairs into the lecture space in mid-discussion. Later, Jesse Peery (Werner Heisenberg) enters on the opposite side. He takes his time, almost conversing with the audience, but really trapped in memory. The three begin to dance; not literally, but figuratively. Something truly worth mentioning is the constant active listening going on between these three actors. They are a part of each moment of the show – not just the blocking – but the living and inhabiting of these people. Their performances are genuine. I believe they know that what they are doing is less about acting and more about the text, the ideology, and the people.
“Why?” is constantly asked. Why did Heisenberg come? Why didn’t he do more? Why did Bohr dismiss Heisenberg on that day and in the future? These questions are looked at, turned inside out, played and replayed. The views of the characters don’t change, they iterate, they collide, and create a constant reaction. In this movement, both Scharine and Peery seem to be reaching for each other but are pushed away both by time, by historical facts, and by enemy lines. They carry the responsibility of these roles and these men with them. That isn’t to say there isn’t levity. Frayn’s work lends itself to smiles and even a few laughs at times. Mostly you are engrossed in the discussion, in the hope that an answer will be reached and a viewpoint ratified.
The real measure of the success of a play like Copenhagen, and of any production like it, is whether the experience sparks conversation. Motley Wandering Minstrels’ production does this with aplomb. In fact, the power of this production already shined at the intermission when, as we sat and pondered about what we saw, we noticed that all around us in the audience were discussions about the play. They were talking about the exact subject-matters that the actors had been arguing about. The sense of wonder, the sense of desire to understand, were palpable. The storytellers in this production should be proud of what they have created. Even after the show was over, people milled about and entered into a narrative with the actors, asking for their thoughts about the characters and about the situation. It all is quietly understated and well done.
Go see this production. Allow yourself the special opportunity to go beyond entertainment: to really think. Perhaps, as we did, you will find yourself reflecting about this production long after the final bows.
Motley Wandering Minstrels presents Copenhagen by Michael Frayn.
Motley Wandering Minstrels, at the James Fletcher Building on the University of Utah campus. 115 South 1400 East Salt Lake City, Utah 84112-0830
*If you are unfamiliar with the University of Utah campus, the Fletcher Building is directly northeast of Kingsbury Hall.
April 12-21, 2018 7:00 PM, Thur-Sat.
Tickets: $5, free to students.
Email MotleyWandM@gmail.com for reservations
Motley Wandering Minstrels Facebook Page
Copenhagen Facebook Event