Review – Copenhagen, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 22nd September 2018

CopenhagenIt’s with happiness tinged with sadness that I reflect that this was our last Chichester weekend of the year. It’s a privilege to be able to visit this influential and creative theatrical hub a few times throughout the summer, mixing it in with sensational lunches at the Minerva Brasserie and an enjoyable wind-down post-show with the excellent sharing boards in the Minerva Grill; unless, like me, you don’t share your board – I have the Vegetarian Board all to myself and it’s fab!

C 8For our final visit to Chichester this year we were spoilt for company, as we had Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and Professor and Mrs Plum to enjoy it with us. And for our first theatrical extravaganza of the day, we saw a revival of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, his highly successful play about an imagined get-together by quantum physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, together with Niels’ wife Margrethe, after they’d all died. They looked back at a meeting between them all in 1941 in Copenhagen.

C 7What was the purpose of their meeting? Ay, there’s the rub. The essential elements of what brought them together are played out a number of times as the characters try to get to the truth of exactly what happened and why. I’m no quantum physicist, as you’ll soon see, but apparently – according to Michael Frayn’s introductory note in the programme – the act of observation changes what’s being observed. That’s one of the implications of quantum mechanics that Bohr and Heisenberg formulated in the 1920s. Therefore, every time we go back to re-observe, Groundhog Day-like, the events of that meeting, those events, by their very nature, have changed. Have I lost you? I’ve certainly lost myself.

C 3It’s not often that a play totally bamboozles me, but I confess this one did. Mr Frayn was in the bar later that evening; we really should have asked him to tell us what it was all about, but then we would have looked completely foolish. I take comfort in the fact that more intelligent souls than me, not to mention highly experienced drama and literary critics over the years, have emerged from theatres showing this play saying, in a highly intellectual way of course, “my brain hurts”.

C 2There’s no doubt that this meeting actually happened. In 1941, Bohr’s Denmark had been invaded and subjugated by Heisenberg’s Germany, so it wasn’t the most auspicious of times to meet, even though the two had been old friends from way back. It makes small-talk difficult; when Heisenberg tactlessly suggests a skiing trip to his place in the German mountains, the Bohrs look at him like he’s completely lost his marbles. Most commentators agree that their meeting was to debate the morality of scientists working on the creation of nuclear weapons. Heisenberg was in charge of the Nazi nuclear weapons project; Bohr was a natural peacemaker who despised the thought of science being used in this destructive way. But what actually went on between the two of them, we’ll probably never know. A number of letters were written, and discovered, over the years that complicate the opinions of these protagonists. Frayn’s play is therefore an attempt to clarify, or at least suggest, how the whole meeting might have played out. I think. But I’m not sure.

C 1I was left merely to enjoy the interplay between the characters, the high-quality acting, and convincing arguments being made on stage that you think you understand and follow – only to discover you’ve been left behind on a new strand of arguments and you’ve already forgotten what the first one was about. I think it probably does help if you’re a quantum physicist yourself; none of us is, although between us we do have a number of first-rate intellects who can form an opinion on most things. Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt like we should be wearing dunce caps in the corner.

C 6Maybe one of the problems with this very wordy play is the lack of action. Three actors, three chairs and a lot of sentences doesn’t necessarily make for great drama. Fortunately, Michael Blakemore (still directing at the age of 90, goodness me!) assembled a terrific, committed and intelligent cast who convert Frayn’s text into believable conversation and reminiscence. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Paul Jesson as Bohr; a reasoning and reasonable man but quick to ire and susceptible to bluster, as older authoritative figures frequently are. C 4He delights in pointing out where his Young Pretender’s calculations and assumptions have gone wrong – he is the Master Lecturer, after all. Charles Edwards’ Heisenberg is more measured in tone, calmer in argument, with a little of the smugness you get from being on the winning side of a war (at least at that point). Umpiring the two is Patricia Hodge’s Margrethe, a solemn, contemplative character who chips in with a few pointed remarks but largely keeps her thoughts to herself unless she can see the two men completely going up the wrong path.

C 5The play has long been a success, and it has certainly succeeded in making me curious to know more about these men and their theories. Alas, its short season has now ended, but this powerful, if static, production certainly exercised our brainboxes!

Production photos by Conrad Blakemore

Review – Benefactors, Crucible Studio Theatre, Sheffield, 17th March 2012

BenefactorsAn ambitious young architect has a great vision for social housing in some decaying corner of SE15, something that will provide decent accommodation whilst enhancing community spirit. His kindly wife keeps open house for their needy neighbours, whilst doing his admin and looking after the kids. The two guys were obviously at college together and the other chap has gone into journalism, whilst his wife, a sometime nurse, has gone into some form of depression.

Simon WilsonBut all is not as it seems. The friendships and marriages are fragile. Petty jealousies and rivalries come to the fore; and roles and values change. As the reality of dealing with planners, builders, utilities and so on gets progressively harder, the great vision for social housing becomes a little eroded. Compromises are made. Low rises become high rises. High rises become very high rises. Decent community housing becomes a mere tool for getting a job done; and something breaks between the four of them. I won’t tell you more of the plot because it’s an intriguing comedy and as it develops, the characters become more honest and the true nature of their relationships gets revealed.

Andrew WoodallSimon Wilson plays architect David, and his journey from noble visionary to cynic is very credibly done. It’s a solid central role, a character who sometimes can’t see the blindingly obvious, and his internal battles of self-confidence versus growing defeatism are nicely judged. His old friend and later rival Colin is played by Andrew Woodall, whose apparent reverse journey of cynic to visionary is also very well portrayed. His deflated disappointment with a life, a job and a wife none of which he rates particularly highly, all contribute to his being rather a nasty piece of work, and he carries it off well.

Abigail CruttendenHowever, I enjoyed the performances of the two women rather more. David’s wife Jane is played by Abigail Cruttenden, bringing out all the comic nuances of being nice as pie to Colin and his wife Sheila whilst actually finding the open house situation drives her mad, really disliking Colin and being frustrated with Sheila. When Colin manipulates her in the second act to a position of working against her husband, her distaste for what she is doing is both sad and funny, and her enthusiasm for how her role subsequently develops is also very amusingly done.

Rebecca LaceyAt first you think Rebecca Lacey’s Sheila is going to be a mousey mute but her journey of self-development is extremely well portrayed. When the mouse eventually roars it’s a very telling moment. With something of the 1970s Prunella Scales about her, during the course of the play step by step she pieces back together again something of a new life, courtesy of her benefactors. It’s another excellent performance.

The creatively flexible space that is the Crucible Studio is given over to a simple kitchen set, with just a few kitchen implements and bits of crockery and a functional kitchen table big enough to feed the neighbours and to spread out architectural drawings. It’s a straightforward set for a straightforward production that lets the text do the talking, and weaves an entertaining tale of what happens when you are practised at being good to others. It’s a very cleverly constructed play – I liked how it’s Jane who takes the confessional role in the first act and David who assumes that role in the second. But I still feel that the play’s vision is a little cramped – perhaps I was comparing it too much with the broad brush of “Democracy” that we saw earlier that day – and whilst it’s a good play, I don’t think it’s a great play. However, Mrs C enjoyed it somewhat more than I did and feels the characters’ journeys are very provocatively portrayed and that it says a lot about the nature of relationships and idealism versus reality. I’ll leave it up to you to decide who is right!

Review – Democracy, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 17th March 2012

Michael Frayn Season Mrs Chrisparkle and I love our occasional jaunts up to Sheffield, not least because the Crucible Theatre offers such a flexible space for meaty drama. This year their Michael Frayn season featured three plays, all of which were new to both of us. Alas, we couldn’t fit in seeing Copenhagen, but we made up for it by seeing both Democracy and Benefactors on the same day.

DemocracyWest German Chancellor Willy Brandt had an eye for the ladies and was supreme at simple evocative gestures on public appearances that made him a natural political leader. Unfortunately he and his team were not as adept at identifying and weeding out spies in their midst. Günther Guillaume was an East German spy who infiltrated the West German government and indeed worked closely alongside Brandt whilst copying virtually every internal document and sending it back to his East German spymaster Kretschmann via his wife Christel, in order to please the (never seen) big boss Mischa.

Patrick DruryVisually, this production offers a very simple presentation, with basic furniture and props, and excellent attention to detail in the business suit costume department. Director Paul Miller uses the big Crucible stage as a blank canvas for the interactions between the Chancellor and Ministers and the spy, with small corners at the edges of the stage depicting Brandt’s office, Guillaume’s office, the cabinet room and Kretschmann’s office. All the time that Guillaume is talking to the ministers he is also talking to Kretschmann, plainly demonstrating the very stark reality of the act of espionage – its ease and naturalness, and the way in which in fact it appears remarkably unsecretive. It’s a very effective way of showing Guillaume’s two-timing nature. Whenever a new minister is introduced, Guillaume reports the fact back to Kretschmann, who flings out another secret dossier on his office floor. The infiltration is all so obvious to us; which gives the dramatic intensity to the fact that Brandt’s team can’t see it.

Aidan McArdleEventually the bumbling security department begin to twig, and to decide how to cope with the knowledge of the spy in the midst. There’s a wonderful scene between Brandt and Guillaume in the Norwegian countryside, where Brandt, now deeply suspicious that Guillaume is a spy, tells him about his youthful days, and how he too worked undercover – but without quite accusing, just letting suggestions hang in the air for Guillaume to deflect as best he can. Not long after that Guillaume is arrested and under the glare of a blinding white light he is captured and immediately confesses. In the future, East Germany, along with the rest of the Iron Curtain states, is no more; and the play questions the point of sacrificing oneself and ones family for the State. It’s a very well written and thought-provoking play.

Richard HopeIt’s also extremely well performed. Patrick Drury as Brandt has a quiet arrogance that becomes noble when impressing a crowd but can make for a tough cookie when he is dealing with colleagues. When things go wrong he acquires a weakness that is virtually tangible. Telling Guillaume of his enigmatic past in Norway he becomes curiously manipulative. Like Walt Whitman, he is large; he contains multitudes. It’s all completely believable.

William HoylandAs Guillaume, Aidan McArdle hits exactly the right note of slightly weaselly subservience with Brandt, but with clarity and confidence in his dealings with Kretschmann. As he gets further in to his deception, he finds he has a loyalty to both his masters and the only way to satisfy this loyalty is to sacrifice himself. With slightly maniacal hair and a vaguely shabbier suit than his colleagues he is subtly presented as being from a different world from the rest of them; his East German roots inspiring snobbery from the other ministers, apart from his gullible champion Ehmke, a wonderfully positive and open performance from Richard Hope. Mr Hope even accepts Brandt’s turning his back on him and his demotion to being in charge of the Post Office with a charming innocent brightness.

David MallinsonOther excellent performances come from William Hoyland as irascible pipe-smoking party leader Herbert Wehner, delightfully scheming and pompous; David Mallinson as Helmut Schmidt, every inch a politician; and Ed Hughes as East German Kretschmann, his leather jacket and casual appearance adding to his visible foreignness, at times frustrated by and jealous of Guillaume’s hands-on honour of performing this noble espionage for the Good of the East German State.

Ed HughesThe performance we saw was captioned by Stagetext. I’ve not seen this before – basically, on a screen either side of the stage, the script scrolls up so you can read what the cast are saying. I found myself reading it more than I would have expected. As someone who occasionally can find it a little difficult to catch everything that gets spoken on stage I can definitely see how it could help one’s theatregoing experience. It also reveals when the cast make minor slip ups with the words though – and that happened a lot more than I would have predicted!

I’d definitely recommend this production of this stimulating play, well performed and directed, which will certainly have you thinking and analysing on the way home.