Copenhagen, Too Clever By Half, Wuthering Heights


JOYCE MCMILLAN on COPENHAGEN at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, TOO CLEVER BY HALF at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and WUTHERING HEIGHTS (Tamasha at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow) for Scotsman Arts 23.4.09

Copenhagen   4 stars ****
Too Clever By Half   3 stars ***
Wuthering Heights   4 stars ****

IN 1924, THE YOUNG GERMAN PHYSICIST Werner Heisenberg arrived in Copenhagen to work as a postgraduate student with his great Danish colleague and teacher, Niels Bohr.   What followed was a thrilling half-decade of work that transformed the science of physics forever, as Bohr and Heisenberg, together with colleagues across Europe, began to formulate the cluster of mind-blowing theories – on uncertainty, on wave and particle theory, and on the famous “observer effect” in experimentation – that form the basis of modern quantum physics, and radically challenge most of our assumptions about the stable nature of “scientific truth”.

And it’s this newborn sense of uncertainty – of strangeness, subjectivity and mystery at the very heart of mathematics and science – that drives Michael Frayn’s magnificent 1998 play Copenhagen, which reflects on a moment of huge stress in Bohr and Heisenberg’s relationship, seventeen years on.  By 1941, the Second World War was at its height. Denmark was under increasingly harsh German occupation, Heisenberg was in charge of the Berlin research project which could have given Hitler his first atomic bomb; and at that point, mysterously, Heisenberg left Berlin to visit Bohr in Copenhagen, in search of – well, what?  Moral permission to continue his research?  Absolution for the horror that might result?  Or a firm instruction, from his old mentor, to walk away from his work, regardless of the cost?

All that is known about the meeting is that it ended in a fierce quarrel between the two men; but in his great play, Frayn marshals all the new vocabulary of modern particle physics, both in his text and in the looping, colliding structure of the drama, to reimagine – not once, but four times, in ever-tightening spirals – exactly how that meeting might have gone, and how it may have changed the whole course of human history.  Sixty years on, the ghosts of Bohr and Heisenberg – and, crucially, of Bohr’s intelligent and supportive wife, Margrethe – gather to  remember the events of the evening; they never achieve a final version, but they leave us with a powerful, thrilling, and at times almost mystical sense of how tiny shifts of time, chance, decision or fate, can have an impact literally beyond calculation.

Tony Cownie’s new Royal Lyceum production of the play is competent, enjoyable, and a touch unambitious.  Vocally, it inhabits prissy standard-British-rep territory, as if it were unthinkable that the city of Edinburgh – home of the scientific Enlightenment – could have a distinctive voice in which to tackle this play; structurally, it sometimes seems to use Tom Mannion’s sheer physical energy, in the central role of Bohr, as a substitute for analysis.

At its best, though – on Neil Murray’s delicately suggestive set – it achieves the rich, thoughtful, and mysterious atmosphere of an old JB Priestley time play, or a good British movie of the 1940’s.  Mannion is a strong and intensely lovable Niels Bohr, full of the joy of intellectual endeavour; Sally Edwards holds the ring beautifully as Margrethe; and Owen Oakeshott warms steadily to the role of Heisenberg.  And as ever, Frayn’s play represents a thrilling demonstration of the power of the word on stage.  Just when we thought that dependence on language in theatre had become hopelessly old-fashioned, here comes the wordiest play imaginable; and mysteriously, it blazes with life.

Andrew Dallmeyer’s new short play Too Clever By Half – this week’s offering in the Oran Mor Play, Pie and Pint season – also reflects on the power of the human mind; but it appproaches the borderlands of modern science in the wacky and satirical spirit of a Karel Capek or a Woody Allen, rather than in Frayn’s more measured style.  In a biological research institute, two scientists in siren suits – Monica and Gavin – are locked into an isolation room after the leak of a lethal virus.  The voice on the intercom tries to reassure; but it soon seems that the two are on their way down to dusty death, until a sudden mutation of the virus restores them to health, and endows them with superhuman mental, spiritual and creative powers; speaking in iambic pentameters and dreaming great dreams, the two become dangerously free spirits.  Ross Stenhouse and the wonderful Morag Stark have great fun projecting Dallmeyer’s old-fashioned futurism, for all its worth; and there are some interesting visual images to admire, in the frequent moments when the script lapses into stodgy social commentary, or outright daftness.

If you want evidence that it’s not only political and economic power that can move sharply from west to east, though, then you could do much worse than race to the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow, where Tamasha Theatre Company and Oldham Coliseum are presenting their no-holds-barred Bollywood musical version of Wuthering Heights, set not on a blasted heath in Yorkshire, but in the sun-parched deserts of Rajasthan.

Endowed by songwriters Felix Cross and Sheema Mukherjee with a dozen songs in a mind-blowing collision of musical styles – half raga, half Andrew Lloyd Webber – the show has its awkward and cheesy moments.  But for sheer, passionate understanding of the romantic impulse, and of the nature and tragedy of the doomed romance between Krishnan and Shakuntala (the Rajasthan Heathcliff and Cathy), this show knocks the recent jokey and apologetic British touring version into a cocked hat.  It’s not subtle, and it’s far less obsessed than Emily Bronte’s original with the filtering of the narrative through the eyes of various observers.   But it delivers the basic stuff of the story with a style and dauntlessness that Bronte herself would surely have admired; as well as with a series of joyful tributes to the great western musical tradition, and a range of colour and light to lift the heart, on a cold Glasgow evening.

Copenhagen at the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until 9 May.  Too Clever By Half at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 25 April.  Wuthering Heights at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until 25 April.


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