June 10, 2012 4:18 pm

The Physicists, Donmar Warehouse, London

This is a fine revival of a flawed but fascinating play written when the world was in the grip of the Cold War
Oliver Coopersmith and John Heffernan in ‘The Physicists’©Johan Persson

Oliver Coopersmith and John Heffernan in ‘The Physicists’

At first glance, the opening three shows under Josie Rourke as new artistic director have little in common: George Farquhar’s ebullient 18th-century romp The Recruiting Officer , Robert Holman’s meditative trilogy Making Noise Quietly and, now, Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s surreal comedy, The Physicists. But peer a little closer and you realise that threading through all of them are common themes: war and moral responsibility.

The focus shifts in this latest show to the minds that devise destruction. Written in 1961, with the Cold War in full grip and the possibility of nuclear annihilation a very real threat, Dürrenmatt’s play (drolly translated here by Jack Thorne) asks what level of responsibility scientists have for the way their discoveries are used. Can physics remain untainted by the possibilities it opens? “Physics has run ahead of humanity,” says one character. “And humanity needs the chance to catch up.”

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Dürrenmatt addresses the mix of excitement and terror at what the human mind can achieve in a crazed, clinical setting where ethical questions ping around like squash balls. We are in a private sanatorium for the mentally ill, along with one patient who thinks he is Isaac Newton, another who calls himself Einstein and a third who is visited by King Solomon. The play opens in Orton farce mode, with a dead nurse on the floor and an exasperated detective (John Ramm) trying to get a straight answer out of a hatchet-faced employee (Joanna Brookes).

Madness absolves the murderer from responsibility – but is he in fact mad? Gradually we learn who these people really are and why one scientist has deliberately sought refuge in a place where his ideas cannot be taken seriously. But he reckons without the devious psychiatric doctor in charge (played as a fabulously odd old stick by Sophie Thompson).

It’s intriguing, but there is a strain to proceedings. Though the questions Dürrenmatt raises remain pressing, the drama itself seems pretty dated and ultimately rather arch. It suffers, as most plays driven by problems do, of feeling dry and seems to take a long route to make its points.

Josie Rourke’s revival, however, is crisp, witty and plays up its strengths, creating a constant sense of unpredictability to match the newly unstable world. There are funny performances from Justin Salinger as Newton and Paul Bhattacharjee as Einstein and a superb one from John Heffernan as the sanest madman in the place. A fine revival of a fascinating but flawed play.

3 stars

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