‘Copenhagen’ shifts perspective of memory

Last Thursday, the College hosted a special performance and discussion of Copenhagen, a play that first premiered 12 years ago in London, and later had a successful Broadway run. Two of the original cast members, Blair Brown and Michael Cumpsty, were in attendance and were able to offer their own insight about the performance between each reading.

The play centers on the European and American efforts to create atomic weapons during World War II, and focuses on the relationship between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. When Heisenberg comes to visit Bohr at the height of German power, the men, formerly friends and colleagues, both experience feelings of mistrust and suspicion.

The production, put on through a collaboration between the department of theatre, the Williamstown Theatre Festival and the Gaudino fund, took place in the Director’s Studio at the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance. Spectators filled the intimate space to capacity, forcing some to stand in the back due to such high attendance.

After a brief introduction from Jenny Gersten, artistic director of the Williamstown Theatre Festival, the piece began with four extended readings from the original play, performed by three senior theater majors. With no set or costumes, the actors sat on stools and read emotively from lecterns, often interacting directly with the spectators.

Despite the minimalist presentation, the actors believably embodied their characters. Each managed to create an easily identifiable personality around the historical figures whose behaviors and mannerisms are not well known to the general public. The lack of details such as costumes, however, did cause confusion at times, especially because the narrative often jumps through time with little warning.

The entire play can be described as a “thought experiment” in which the characters, and even the audience members, try to decode their opinions and feelings about the presented material. As much of the play focuses on characters reminiscing on past events, memories often differ, forcing the characters to grow and learn, separating fact from fiction.

The play only has three characters: Bohr, Heisenberg and Margrethe, Bohr’s wife. Margrethe serves as a narrator, who often shares asides with the audience, or attempts to resolve conflicts by sharing her own memories or interpretations.

Despite focusing on some dark themes, including fear, trust, regret and guilt, humor plays a large role in the dialogue as well. In particular, Margrethe often jokes about her mistrust of Heisenberg or her lack of understanding in physics, with perfect comedic timing to give the audience a break from the onslaught of tension.

Like this production, Brown and Cumpsty explained that the set on Broadway was bare, and each actor only had one costume. The stage was circular, increasing the trial-like feeling of the play and adding tension to the play. In addition to that, the chairs were of authentic Danish design and were made from light-colored Scandinavian wood.

As this play is based in historical fact, performances on certain anniversaries were unavoidable. When one particular performance fell on an anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, the play ended in silence, and the actors could feel the trembling of the audience members. Instances like this really bring to life how real the moral dilemmas are in this play: this actually happened, and could happen again.

After the readings, all of the actors and two professors formed a panel to answer questions. Both Thomas Kohut, professor of history, and Daniel Aalberts, professor of physics, were present in order to emphasize the factual accuracy of the play. Kohut explained that while the play is historically accurate as far as anybody can know for sure, it is even more psychologically accurate. The characters feel and act like real people. It asks to be judged, yet does not demand one particular answer. Much like in real life, the line between right and wrong is blurred beyond recognition.

Cumpsty ended on this haunting note: “We are the questions that torment us.” It is a frightening prospect, but an accurate one all the same.

  • Lily

    Thanks for the nice review.

    When writing a theatrical review, it is good practice to give credit (positive or negative!) to the appropriate artists.

    So, for anyone reading, the actress you describe as having performed with “perfect comedic timing” is Justine Neubarth.

    The actors who played Bohr and Heisenberg and “believably embodied their characters” and also each “managed to create an easily identifiable personality” were John Chandler Hawthorne and Stephen Simalchik.

    While including these names may not make any difference to you, it makes a difference to the artists and to your readers. Artists walk away with quotations that they can include in portfolios and on websites, and your readers can engage more directly with your criticism because they have a better sense of the event you are describing. By giving credit, you are not only serving the artists, you are serving your readership and your publication.

    This is a problem with almost all of the Record’s theatre criticism, which generally neglects to credit designers, directors, and technicians for their work.

    I would recommend reading criticism by Ben Brantley, Charles Isherwood, Terry Teachout, or any other lead critic at a major publication to get a sense of how different critics manage to credit the artists whose work they evaluate. Perhaps the simplest solution would be to give a list of credits at the end of the review. That would relieve the Record’s writers of the burden of giving credit in a thoughtful way, while still enabling your readers to attach a name to the work you describe.