"When you apply mathematics to people, it does not work"

Gabriella La Rocca on The Tabard's current production Copenhagen

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Michael Frayn's Copenhagen at The Tabard

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Tabard Theatre, 2 Bath Road, Chiswick W4 1LW

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‘When you apply mathematics to people, it does not work,’ said Heisenberg and the play ‘Copenhagen’ confirms it.

Based on one true private visit that took place in the Danish capital, in September/October 1941, two great friends and physicists Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, who both contributed immensely to the development of quantum theory, are now clearly going opposite directions – Bohr has a Jewish background and Heisenberg has become the Head of Nazi Regime’s project to create an atomic bomb.

The play becomes the periscope of their minds and attempts to show the audience what happens when influential people feel fear and uncertainty.

How does the writer, Michael Frayn, do it? He uses their spirits to slip, intermittently, back and forth into the future and the past, referring continuously to what was said, or even not said, that night in 1941. It works.

Their uncertainty is felt by the audience even more when there is the sound of chalk, shrilly, against the blackboards full of formulas after formulas of quantum mechanics. Neurons and orbits can become deadly weapons.

Fear is the epicentre of the play and the three characters enter a battlefield of contrasting thoughts on morals. Making the right decisions. What is the right decision? For Heisenberg? And for Bohr? What is best for your country may not be what you think or feel. What if. Troubled times and more to come.

This is not light entertainment and an hour into the play you are waiting with bated breath to get out and get a drink only to go back inside to find out the answers.

Mathematics and physics delve into the uncertainty of the universe but the answers are not found in science, and maths definitely do not apply. It is about people and their lives. Bohr adds: ‘If there is no uncertainty there would be no knowledge [of who we are].’ It is a time of remembrance and it is now that we think about the past. If it had been different, what would our lives be like now?

Copenhagen is well delivered by three experienced actors. The performance, though, evolves around Roger Ringrose who plays Neils Bohr: he switches his passion of numbers, neurons and orbits to uncontrollable anger at the mere thought of how destructive his discoveries can be.

Gabriella La Rocca

November 13, 2007