by Roseann Cane
In 1941, the German atomic physicist Werner Heisenberg met with his former mentor, Danish physicist Neils Bohr, and Bohr’s wife Margrethe, in their home in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen.
Both men were to give conflicting reports of what happened during the meeting, and this has long been the subject of speculation for puzzled historians.
Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, presented by the Berkshire Theatre Group, is a fictionalized reconstruction of the discussion that took place, presented in non-linear fashion through the points of view of the three participants. Frayn would probably bristle to hear his work called fictionalized; as he was creating the play, he immersed himself in historical documents, and has said that all of the dialogue was stated by the three participants. To me, it’s still fiction, because the context of the words has been reordered, but nonetheless, the language is faithful to the concept central to this play, which is truth.
Copenhagen is a dazzling, complex piece of work. First presented in London in 1998, it opened on Broadway in 2000, won multiple Tony awards, and has since been produced internationally and was adapted to a film produced by the BBC and presented in the U.S. on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).
Eric Hill’s direction is a nimble, sonorant channel for the intricate ideas and ethical questions his superb actors exchange. Isadora Wolfe deserves kudos for her beautifully crafted movement direction. At various times, Bohr (David Adkins), Margrethe (Corinna May), and Heisenberg (Harry Smith) appear to join in a vigorous discussion, or talk at each other, or verbalize commentary on what’s happening. For a play that relies so heavily on the spoken word, the keen physical movement of the trio is essentially additional commentary, and it is fascinating to watch. There were a couple of choices I found distracting; for example, May directs a sly comment to the audience (“Tea? Cake?”) as the two men are having a rigorous exchange. I feel that this crack in the fourth wall didn’t serve the play, since the dynamic is so dependent on the relationships between the characters.
As Bohr, Adkins, conflicted in his experience of personal suffering (he was of Jewish heritage, and lived in Nazi-occupied Denmark, later escaping to Sweden rather than risk being captured) and the suffering he may have brought upon others (he would later work on the atomic bomb in Los Alamos), conflicted in his feelings for his former student (who was leading the nuclear reactor program in Nazi Germany), shines a bright light on his inner struggle between the scientist and the human being. His work is mesmerizing.
May is superb as Margrethe, her intelligence and simmering anger informing her performance, and while I might have wished her anger were expressed more forcefully, that it were built up rather than explosive toward the end of the play, she gracefully and completely embodied Margrethe.
Smith’s Heisenberg is near perfect, succeeding in making us reconsider just how destructive his work had been.
Randall Parsons deceptively simple set design works beautifully for the production. Elvia Bovenzi Blitz’s costumes define the actors impeccably. The creative, unusual lighting design by Matthew E. Adelson deserves special mention, as do Scott Killian’s innovative, memorable music composition and sound design.
Copenhagen by Michael Frayn, directed by Eric Hill, plays September 28 through October 29, 2023, on the Larry Vaber Stage at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Theatre, 6 East Street in Stockbridge MA. The show runs approximately 2 hours, 20 minutes with a 15 minute intermission. Suitable for ages 12+ CAST: David Adkins as Neils Bohr, Corinna May as Margethe Nørlund Bohr, and Harry Smith as Werner Heisenberg. Movement direction by Isadora Wolfe; scenic design by Randall Parsons; costume design by Elivia Bovenzi Blitz; lighting design by Matthew E. Adelson; resident composer/sound designer Scott Killian; projections design by Adam Lewis; stage manager Caroline Ragland.
Tickets: $52, To purchase tickets, visit www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org or contact the Colonial Box Office by calling 413-997-4444. The Box Office is open Tuesday through Sunday 12pm-5pm or on any performance day from 12pm until curtain.