Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen is that rarest of beasts: a fictionalised account of real-life events, dense in historical research, that manages not to lose sight of the human dilemma at its centre. Springing from a fascinating premise (a meeting between Danish quantum physicist Niels Bohr and his German protégé Werner Heisenberg at the former’s home in September 1941 and its potential global significance) the text jumps back and forth in time between 1941; a postwar meeting following the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; early encounters between the two in 1924; and a ghostly afterlife when Bohr, Heisenberg and Bohr’s wife Margrethe (also present in 1941) are free to speculate without fear of redress.
These conjectures inform the drama. What was Heisenberg’s intention in visiting Bohr? What actually transpired at the meeting? Was Heisenberg’s work on developing atomic energy for the Germans being carried out for the purpose of creating a reactor or for the development of an atomic bomb?
Neil Murray’s set design for Tony Cownie’s engaging production is starkly striking: an impressionistic wood created from outsized rolled-up sheets of paper on which are etched the laborious workings of Bohr, Heisenberg and countless other renowned physicists. But the set is barely used by the actors who remain largely confined to the downstage area, and this lack of movement beyond the undulating pace of the text leads to occasional dips in momentum. That said, the three-strong cast makes a respectable fist of Frayn’s complex, exposition-heavy play, with Owen Oakeshott in particular bringing a much-needed lightness of touch to bear on passionate, neurotic Heisenberg.
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until Sat 9 May