Copenhagen is the quintessential Michael Frayn play. Its setting in the world of quantum physics may be uniquely fitting to the Frayn approach, but time and again his dramas demonstrate that no single perspective can show us all the salient aspects of an issue or a sequence of events. Most famously, his classic farce Noises Off (whose latest revival transfers from the Old Vic to the West End later this month) shows us the same first act three times in a succession of temporal and emotional contexts. But each of the three plays in the current Sheffield season devoted to Frayn – Benefactors in the studio space, his double-agent drama Democracy, which opens in the Crucible next week, and Copenhagen itself in the Lyceum – consists of constantly shifting angles and serial re-evaluations. Or, as Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle puts it, the more we know about one property of a particle (such as its position), the less we can reliably know about others (eg momentum).
Frayn’s 1984 work Benefactors observes the assorted connections and disconnections among its quartet of protagonists while one of them attempts to design and build a new high-rise public housing development in south-east London. (The play is set in the late 1960s, just as high-rise was falling out of favour.) Matters of public and private territoriality bounce off each other, creating complex interference patterns and harmonics. That, however, is an inappropriate metaphor for Charlotte Gwinner’s production, which uses a minimum of sound and lighting effects, trusting instead in script and performances to do the work.
She is right to do so. Simon Wilson’s architect David is in a world of his own; Abigail Cruttenden as his wife Jane despises her own obligingness; Rebecca Lacey as neighbour Sheila is a kind of English suburban version of Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, mousily manipulating others to allow her to depend on them. Sheila’s husband Colin is one of those rumpled Luciferic roles in which Andrew Woodall excels: morally despicable yet dramatically compelling.
We not only watch the changing angles for the characters, but observe further ones of our own, as we look in on a vanished world where public housing was part of the cultural conversation. Then we leave the theatre and look across the city centre to the roughly contemporaneous “streets in the sky” Park Hill development, now undergoing refurbishment and Europe’s biggest single listed building.
In Copenhagen the personal and political also morph repeatedly into each other, but through the medium of physics. Heisenberg, his former mentor Niels Bohr and Bohr’s wife Margrethe repeatedly re-analyse Heisenberg’s 1941 visit to Bohr in Copenhagen. How much was it a personal reunion, how much a matter of scientific politicking between the German Heisenberg, professor at Leipzig under the Nazis, and the half-Jewish Bohr in occupied Denmark . . . or how much a matter of scientific and military intelligence regarding the then-nascent field of nuclear fission and its weaponisation? The three reminisce, debate and argue, producing a sequence of versions or “drafts” of what happened or may have happened.
Director David Grindley takes a similarly sparse staging approach to Gwinner, and is aided by a top-notch cast: Henry Goodman as Bohr, Barbara Flynn as Margrethe and Geoffrey Streatfeild as Heisenberg. In the past I have sometimes questioned Streatfeild’s choices in characterisation, but I have always admired his intelligence and skill; here his Heisenberg is magnificently alive, ironically since all three characters acknowledge that they are now dead. Another Fraynian shift of angle.