Playwright: Michael Frayn
Director: Jake Scaltreto
(2012 Flat Earth Theatre production at the The Factory Theatre)
The play hypothesizes what occurred during an actual visit of the German physicist Werner Heisenberg to his mentor Neils Bohr and his wife, Margrethe in Denmark 1941. The conceit is that all three characters are dead, and in the afterlife they try to remember why Heisenberg visited Bohr. The stage for this particular production was in the round, with the audience surrounding a small circular platform with no set. The audience rows were broken up into an inner and outer circle so the actors could move about the space like neutrons and protons around a nucleus. Both movement and dialogue became quite dizzying as Michael Frayn, the playwright, was unafraid to use specific scientific language.
The actors handled the language and dialogue quite beautifully. Matthew Zahnzinger’s performance as Bohr felt incredibly comfortable, and he managed the dialogue with ease. Emily Hecht played Margrethe with immense strength instead of just being a calming presence, which I imagine is how Margrethe appears on the page. Kevin Kordis seemed nervous in his own skin, but managed to channel that energy into his performance of Heisenberg. Unfortunately, the language got away from him at times, and he’d often have to repeat a phrase to get himself back on track.
Though the actors rose excellently to the challenge of the play, the play itself is very much the thing. Frayn did his research including reading letters from Bohr and Heisenberg, and making use what he learned in order to create as honest a character recreation of that night that he could. Even so, there is no satisfactory answer as to why Heisenberg went to Denmark because there is no clear documentation. Did he go to visit Bohr to discuss the ethical dilemma he was facing because the Nazis were possibly close to a nuclear weapon, and it might be because of his work? Was it a warning? A boast? Heisenberg denied that he visited to gather intelligence. So, why?
Deep within the dialogue, the play also appears explore the question “How did we get here?” The atomic bomb would not exist if Bohr and other physicists hadn’t pushed the field of nuclear physics. But how could they not? It was their passion. Physics is about delving into the building blocks of all life; into the pure foundation of what makes us. But, what happens when you find the building blocks and learn not only know how they create, but how they destroy. And then, what happens when someone takes that knowledge and uses it with malice aforethought?
All tools are weapons, and all weapons are tools. It just depends on how you hold them. You’re responsible for how you use any knowledge that you have. But what happens when you’re the creator. Is it your fault if knowledge you discover and share is used by another for a malicious purpose? Is the atomic bomb Heisenberg’s fault because he was working in Nazi Germany, and this is the research that was demanded of him? Is it Bohr’s fault for starting the ball rolling with his research into the atom?
Who is really at fault? The user or the creator? There are no comfortable answers to these questions, and that is partly why I enjoyed this play. It presents complex philosophical and ethical questions through the window of physics. A very natural window I feel. If physics is the study of creation, then isn’t it our most philosophical of the sciences?