Michael Frayn's play is a cerebral and at times a poetic piece that is an exploration of scientific responsibility and is based on an actual event.
In 1941 Werner Heisenberg, the pre-eminent Nuclear Scientist, left his native Germany to visit occupied Denmark. Whilst there he meets up with his old mentor, Niels Bohr, and his wife, Margrethe at their home. It is known that the two men took a long walk at the end of which they parted in anger. What was said during their conversation was never revealed and the play is Frayn's speculation.
It is cleverly constructed with several versions of what happened unfolding like the layers of an onion and being enacted by the three protagonists looking back and trying to recall the event. Was it merely to reminisce about their early days together when they developed their theories or was it to discuss morality? Perhaps it had a more sinister motive – that of eliciting advice on using atomic energy for use as a weapon.
The play has strands of gentle humour amidst the serious debate and is full of references to quantum physics and mathematics. At times though the bombardment of facts made one feel an affinity with an atom being split.
In this imaginative production, use was made, from time to time, of two video cameras set amongst the audience. Images of the actors were projected on to the set the intention being to reinforce the multi-layered construction of the play. However apart from a couple of occasions I felt that the images were an intrusion and a distraction from the dialogue, the complexity of which required full attention and concentration.
The quality of the writing was matched by tremendous performances from the three actors. Gary Blair, as Bohr, all smiling bonhomie until provoked into anger whilst John Adam - the fervent Heisenberg – forever embarrassed by the Nazi occupation and apologising for it. It fell to Margrethe, played with the right degree of cool restraint by Eleanor Gamper, to act as the outside observer and commentator, adjudicating and correcting, where necessary, any faulty recall that the men made.
Director, Carl Boardman, in addition to drawing out such quality performances, must also be given due recognition for attempting such a complex play and for striving to present it in an understandable way. I particularly liked the triangular relationship of the characters being reflected by the triangular bounds of the acting area.