Globe News

The real mystery science theatre

Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, about the birth of the atom bomb, is one of the most intellectually challenging plays to hit the stage in years, MICHAEL POSNER writes


Monday, February 2, 2004 - Page R3

True story: One night last month, a couple turns up at Toronto's Winter Garden Theatre. Long-time subscribers to the Mirvish organization's seasons, they have tickets to a play -- they just aren't sure what play. "I think we're here to see Copacabana, the musical," the wife chimes to the usher.

"Actually, it's a play called Copenhagen," the usher replies, "and it's not exactly a musical."

"Oh? What's it about?"

"Nuclear physics."

Indeed, English playwright Michael Frayn's Copenhagen is arguably the most intellectually challenging work to have been mounted on a major commercial stage in many years.

And what is a play about the birth of the atom bomb doing on the Mirvish play list? Many season subscribers have apparently been asking the same question. But thanks largely to Frayn's brilliant writing and electric performances from the cast -- Michael Ball as Niels Bohr, the Nobel Prize-winning Danish physicist, Martha Henry as his wife, Margrethe, and Jim Mezon as German physicist Werner Heisenberg, another Nobel laureate -- there's been a flurry of single-ticket sales.

The play revolves around Heisenberg's clandestine visit to the Bohrs in Copenhagen in 1941. What we do know is that the two men quarrelled and broke off their discussions -- but we don't know why. Like electrons orbiting a nucleus, the three characters circle the stage, re-examining the motive for Heisenberg's trip, a subject of continuing debate among historians and scientists alike.

Many believe Heisenberg was acting on behalf of the Nazis, trying to learn from Bohr, his former mentor, about the Allies' war-time efforts to build the bomb. Others believe Heisenberg was trying to warn Bohr about developments in the Nazi program itself, which he oversaw. The final answer is unknown and perhaps unknowable -- much like Heisenberg's famous Uncertainty Principle, which postulates that all observations are inherently subjective and that nothing can ever be absolutely determined.

"You might have a point of view," Mezon said in an interview last week. "But that's all it would be. You'd just be an observer. Motivations for people's actions are unknowable. And perhaps they didn't know."

But it's one thing for historians to parse the cryptic meaning of letters and documents the two men left behind. It's another to put quantum mechanics on the stage -- and make it work. But work it has, with successful productions in every major theatrical centre -- London, New York and now Toronto (after runs last year, with the same cast, in Ottawa and Halifax).

For the actors, the play poses a double challenge: not only to get inside the skulls of the three principals, but to deliver with complete facility and credibility lines about particle physics that might have been lifted verbatim from a university text.

When the Canadian cast was preparing the show last year, the production actually hired a young scientist named Chris Scholey to give Mezon, Henry and Ball an intense, four-day seminar in Physics 101.

"We could not have done it without him," Mezon said. "We needed to be all on the same page, and he took us through the play explaining specifics. By the end of the day our brains were spinning."

Mezon, 52, had never taken a physics course in his life before encountering the play. He'd heard of Bohr, of course, but had never heard of Heisenberg, nor knew anything about the Heisenberg principle -- a revolutionary formulation that has become part of modern science's intellectual bedrocks.

But Mezon had bought a copy of Frayn's play and loved it. Its appeal, he said, has something to do with George Bernard Shaw -- Mezon has spent 20 seasons at the Shaw Festival -- "because it's a play about ideas and people who are brilliant. If you just read it off the page, it can seem incredibly dry. But if you put yourself into that place and read it with passion, it can be incredibly dramatic."

Later, Mezon bumped into National Arts Centre artistic director Marti Maraden and said, " 'If you ever do Copenhagen, call me.' And she called me."

The cast's physics tutor, Scholey, was actually trained in marine biology at the University of Western Ontario. But his science background made it relatively easy for him to pick up the ABCs of quantum physics, a field that studies the behaviour of atomic and subatomic particles. Scholey thought he had put science definitively behind him when he finally opted for his other great passion -- the theatre -- and joined the new-play development department at Canadian Stage.

When the play's director, Diana Leblanc asked him to give tutorials to the cast last winter, he was thrilled.

"I didn't think anyone could put that kind of heavy scientific material into a play. I knew it would be extremely difficult and would need a very strong cast. And they were all hungry for information." This winter, Scholey worked with the cast members again in preparation for their Toronto opening -- and with their understudies.

Other playwrights have tested audiences with science and equally challenging material. David Auburn's Proof deals to some extent with math. Canadian John Mighton's Possible Worlds is an exploration of a branch of modern philosophy called personal-identity theory, and Vern Thiessen's Einstein's Gift, winner of last year's Governor-General's Award for drama, deals with the life of Nobel laureate Dr. Fritz Haber, who more or less invented chemical warfare.

Scholey says Copenhagen gets a few scientific details wrong, but notes that Frayn is not a scientist and "over all, he did a phenomenal job." His advice to playwrights seeking to put science on the stage: "Do your research. So many of the scripts we see [at CanStage] don't have enough research. You have to make that extra effort, so the actors have something to grab on to."

Mezon, who delivers a powerful performance as a sympathetic Heisenberg, says the application of the scientist's famous principle applies as much to acting as it does to the rest of the observable universe.

"The metaphors are there constantly. If you're thinking about what you're doing, you're not really doing it. You can't think about acting -- otherwise you can't act."

Copenhagen continues at Toronto's Winter Garden Theatre until Feb. 22 (416-872-1212).


Shaky on uncertainty

Tuesday, February 10, 2004 - Page A20

Toronto -- In his review of Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen (The Real Mystery Science Theatre -- Feb. 2), Michael Posner alludes to the ambiguous motives for Werner Heisenberg's visit to Niels Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941 by drawing an analogy with "Heisenberg's famous uncertainty principle, which postulates that all observations are inherently subjective and that nothing can ever be absolutely determined."

Prof. Heisenberg would most certainly be astonished at this unexpected consequence of his eponymous principle. In fact, the uncertainty principle stipulates that, given a measurement of position, a measurement of momentum cannot simultaneously be made to arbitrary accuracy, and vice versa.

Indeed, Mr. Posner provides a ready counter-example to his erroneous extrapolation to the macroscopic world: It can be absolutely determined that a fundamental knowledge of the principles of modern science is no less a prerequisite for being a responsible journalist than for being an informed citizen.

 © 2003 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.