Copenhagen: Quantum leap
Steve Cramer talks to Scottish stage legend Tom Mannion about physics, ambiguity and precision as he takes on the lead role in Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen
One of the hallmarks of success in almost any profession is precision. It is this attention to detail that first strikes me about Tom Mannion. Forgetting the tram-inspired chaos of Princes Street, I arrive late at Edinburgh’s Blue Blazer and meet him outside after a sprint from the bus stop. As he seats himself opposite me and arranges his pint at a careful angle to his elbow, he gestures at my glistening brow. ‘Let’s get you some kitchen towel or something for that,’ he says, a kindly gesture, from a likeable and perspicacious man.
It comes as no surprise that he speaks of his acting technique as being all about a kind of spare and fastidious precision. ‘I’m not the kind of actor who does back stories – I exist only in the language – I don’t do too much background stuff,’ says the man who made such a brilliant lead in Communciado’s Cyrano de Bergerac in the mid-90s. ‘You’ve got to do the pure logic first, then you colour it in – so the text is very important. I’m very forensic that way – not to mention anal!’
Tony Cownie’s production of Michael Frayn’s late-90s hit Copenhagen has scored itself quite a coup in signing Mannion for the role of Nils Bohr. A native Glaswegian, the actor has quietly built himself the status of theatre legend over three decades. During long stints at the RSC he has taken prominent roles in Les Miserables, Julius Caesar, The Duchess of Malfi and many others, while his extensive television work makes him an immediately recognisable face. Yet, for all this, he’s not quite the megastar that other actors carrying the same professional status have become, a fact he in no way laments.
‘I’m not recognised as so-and-so from the telly, so you don’t get limited in the kind of parts you get,’ he says. ‘By the same token you don’t get the big bucks, but I thought the other day, “Hang on, I’ve been married for 25 years, and I’ve never been late on my mortgage and I don’t have an overdraft.” It’s really nice to get lots of work but remain anonymous. I feel jolly lucky.’
Frayn’s play was a notable success, despite being about nuclear physics. There is far more to the story than this, however; Bohr, whose nascent ideas about quantum physics and the ‘uncertainty principle’ inspired a generation of his peers, including Werner Heisenberg who famously hosted a meeting with Bohr in war-torn Denmark. In the play Bohr and wife Margrethe are threatened by the Nazis, while Heisenberg is part of Germany’s nuclear programme.
Frayn’s play takes place retrospectively, with the three characters reflecting, perhaps from beyond the grave, upon a series of tense meetings that tested friendships and potentially decided the fate of the world. ‘If you try to define it too much you spoil it,’ says Mannion. ‘There are moments where you realise that there are answers that Bohr doesn’t want to come to, because if you get the answer you get the bomb. So at one point his wife points out that he’s best left misunderstood, he’s deliberately ambiguous, and so is the play; it’s a deliberate paradox.’
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Fri 17 Apr–Sat 9 May.