The uncertainty of certainty: Review of Copenhagen

By Joseph Planta

VANCOUVER - At the Playhouse Theatre now, until 26 March 2005 is Michael Frayn's absorbing, challenging and incredibly thought-provoking play, Copenhagen. Starring Brent Carver, Victor Ertmanis, and Susan Hogan, the play revolves around a real life meeting had by Werner Heisenberg, played by Carver, and Niels Bohr in 1941. If you're unfamiliar with Heisenberg and Bohr, that's probably forgivable, considering it's not often that physicists and quantum mechanics are the subject of stage drama. Human drama, sure, but stage drama probably not.

And so in the fruitful and stimulating setting of the "afterlife" plays out the drama at the height of World War II. (The afterlife: where "no one can be hurt . . . no one can be betrayed.") Heisenberg travels to Copenhagen to meet Bohr and his wife Margrethe. Heisenberg, best known for his uncertainty principle, headed Nazi Germany's atomic program. In the play, the Bohr's wonder too why Heisenberg has called on them. Though Bohr was his mentor Bohr was viewed as a Jew by the Nazi regime, despite having been baptised a Christian. Perhaps, Heisenberg was attempting to bring Bohr onside, who eventually went to work on the Allies's nuclear development program, which culminated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Or as some others wonder, maybe Heisenberg was attempting to sabotage the Nazi's quest for nuclear domination. In the play, Bohr illuminates the idea attributed to him, of MAD-mutually assured destruction-the belief prevalent during the Cold War, that all countries ought to have an atomic bomb so that they would not use it.

Copenhagen is a fount for such great character drama. Carver portrays Heisenberg, despite his considerable stature in the Nazi regime, as a nervous student approaching the home of the Bohr's; while the Bohr's naturally wonder just why young Heisenberg is to visit. The relationship between the Bohr's is subtle in how it portrays married life in those days, despite the fact at face value they seem rather like equals. The politics of the era cloud the perfunctory dance that they must do when Heisenberg arrives. The play set in the afterlife, when life has essentially passed, provides an amazing setting in which to dissect the actions and facades people put up in real life. You'd think that once in the hereafter, we'd all have the answers, but in Frayn's thoughtful world, it's a little less clear. The afterlife provides that human drama that the playwright invests in non-fictional characters. People, which by the way, were of great consequence to the course of human events in the 20th century.

Though surrounding the seemingly impenetrable world of physics, the human drama unfolds with questions asked by the viewer, wondering as the characters do, just how certain is certainty. Masterful in their fields of scholarship, Bohr and Heisenberg view life differently than idealists-or so you'd think. At least the fictional versions conjured up by Frayn, are as fraught with moral questions, which prove not tangible as figures on paper or an atomic bomb. Other questions posed in Copenhagen, revolve around the drama that has the Second World War as its backdrop. Frayn poses an interesting question, when Heisenberg meets his mentor Bohr: if they, as scientists, have the moral right to work on the practical exploitation of atomic energy. Bohr explodes at the notion, and thus ensues a terrific drama about what was said, what was inferred, and what was assumed. Unlike in Copenhagen, humans deal with the fallout without so much as the benefit of deconstructing every glance, every gesture, or every word.

The players, Carver especially, illuminate and sparkle with the dialogue that they interpret and bring to life. The set is sparse, which allows the actors, the mere three of them, to occupy the space and overcome it with their fine acting. The dreamlike sequences are surprisingly strong and poignant. One blemish on an otherwise fine production is the fact it's sometimes a bit difficult to hear some of the dialogue. Though that is hardly indictable, considering the incredible suggestions of drama in the mere actions of the actors. In the first act, at two different points, both Carver and Ertmanis, tremble; the former in a fit of palpable nervousness, while the latter in a fit of fury. It's practically the same action, but used in two different moments, it underscores what is unheard.

Somewhere in the first act, Heisenberg says, "The more I've explained, the deeper the uncertainty has become." Running at two hours and twenty minutes, with an intermission, it is often tempting to wonder, why all the imagined hand wringing in the afterlife. It's sometimes hard to grasp the magnitude of these two men and the fates they held at such a critical time in this world's history. Then again, it is life itself that poses such longwinded enquiries about fate, about reason, about certainty, and most importantly, about why.


Copenhagen by Michael Frayn, Starring Brent Carver, Victor Ertmanis, and Susan Hogan; and Directed by Glynis Leyshon, runs until 26 March 2005 at the Playhouse Theatre. Tickets are available at TicketMaster, or from the Playhouse Theatre Company at


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