When it comes to physicists, just about everyone has heard of Albert Einstein and can say a thing or two about the general theory of relativity that would be more or less on point. Fewer will also have heard of Werner Heisenberg and the famous “Heisenberg uncertainty principle,” though not many will have much of an understanding of it, without advanced study. Even fewer, will have heard of Niels Bohr, although scientists know him as one of the most influential physicists of the 20th century, and a founder of quantum physics.
So, if we are not physicists or at least mathematically inclined, and unlikely to get much of a grasp on the theories of either Heisenberg or Bohr, why should we be interested in an encounter they had in Copenhagen in October of 1941 when the German scientist Heisenberg visited his mentor and Danish counterpart in German-occupied Denmark. History notes two things: nobody knows exactly what the two scientists discussed, and, after that meeting their relationship was permanently damaged.
The interest lies in just what theoretical physicists were up to in 1941. Germany was at war with most of the civilized world, and there was a race, led by theoretical physicists, to create the unthinkable: the atom bomb. Would the Germans or the Americans be the first to succeed and what would be the consequence?
With stakes like these, the play is very engaging. How did these men feel about the possibility of nuclear holocaust? Was Heisenberg committed to helping Germany build a bomb? If so, would Bohr try to stand in his way? What were there loyalties?
Nobody knows what actually too place during this famous conversation, and it is interesting to speculate.
This fascinating play is designed to work on three levels: On one level, it is a science lesson on the creation of nuclear power. On another, it deals with the politics of science and its real-world applications. And, lastly, it deals with the emotional impact of such significant and world-changing debates on those who are called upon to be players in the game. As a lesson in science and politics, this production of “Copenhagen” is interesting and satisfying. However, on the level of emotional impact, I felt that director Bruce Cohran failed to lead his actors to fully plunge into the emotional depths the script invites.
Theatergoers interested in science and curious about the fascinating history between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg will get what they come for. Those who seek out theatre with emotional impact may find this production quite cold, although interesting intellectually.
“Copenhagen” continues at the Berkeley City Club through January 12, 2020. For further information, click here.
Rating: *** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“Copenhagen” by Michael Frayn. Produced by Indra’s Net Theater. Director: Bruce Coughran. Set Designer: Sarah Phykitt. Lighting Designer: Jim Cave. Costume Designer: Lisa Claybaugh. Composer: Gerry Grosz.
Margrethe Bohr: Nancy Carlin. Neils Bohr: Robert Ernst. Werner Heisenberg: Aaron Wilton.