by Lynn on April 20, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer


Diego Matamoros
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann


At the Young Center for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Michael Frayn

Directed by Katrina Darychuk

Set, projections and lighting by Lorenzo Savoini

Costumes by Gillian Gallow

Composed and sound design by Richard Feren

Cast: Kawa Ada

Kyra Harper

Diego Matamoros

A complex play, but the direction, set and lighting that create a murky production; the acting is terrific.

The Story. It involves Niels Bohr a Danish physicist, his wife Margrethe and Werner Heisenberg, a German physicist and Bohr’s former student and now colleague.

Bohr’s work involved the structure of atoms and he worked for the US on the wartime atomic Energy project (read “atomic bomb”). Heisenberg created Quantum mechanics.

At the height of WWII, in 1941, Werner Heisenberg went to Copenhagen to visit his mentor Niels Bohr.  The reason why is what the play is about, among other things.

The Production.  Lorenzo Savoini’s set is arresting in its spareness—three chairs arranged around the stage, a large hole in the middle of the stage and a sepia coloured mirror suspended at the back of the stage that distorts the reflection of everything in front of it.

 This is a memory play even though the three participants are long dead. Bohr (Diego Matamoros) and Margrethe (Kyra Harper) try to remember Heisenberg’s (Kawa Ada) visit because what happened ended the friendship. Bohr was a Dane who suffered during the war. Naturally Bohr was angry at the Germans for invading Denmark. As Bohr, Diego Matamoros is laid-back, courtly and tempered. He is proud of his former protégée but also mindful of his position in the scientific community in Germany.

Heisenberg was a proud German but was ashamed of how other people were treated by Germany and he certainly worried about Bohr and Margrethe held ‘captive’ in their native land by the invading enemy.  Michael Frayn has created in Heisenberg a savvy, keenly intelligent man who took a huge risk going to Denmark to sound out Bohr. Kawa Ada, as Heisenberg, brings all that intelligence, passion and keen intelligence to the role. He is charming, subtle,  a master diplomat in ferreting out information in the most innocuous way and passionate about the work when trying to get a point across and his friendship with Bohr. Plus there is his compassion and integrity when addressing the larger issues of what a bomb could do.

In the middle of them is Margrethe Bohr. She is beautifully played by Kyra Harper as a kind of referee or mediator. Harper is watchful and a great listener which in turn focuses the audience in the arguments. Frayn’s creation of three smart minds is dazzling.

In the play what Heisenberg initially asks Bohr is if it is immoral for a scientist to work on a project that could result in the killing of thousands of innocent people. Is Heisenberg subtly conveying he knows about work on the atomic bomb? Is he suggesting he might be working on it for Germany and is it wrong? Heisenberg had to walk a fine line with his government that wanted a bomb because Heisenberg didn’t want to help create it. Could he assume that Bohr might work on such a project? There is a lot of subtle maneuvering of the question and the participants go over the question three times.

The play is full of references to conferences and meetings and the dates of all of them, with both Bohr and Heisenberg lobbing the facts and figures at a dizzying speed. One can get bogged down by it all, but that is how these characters talked, and if you accept that, then the burden of  “keeping up” is eased.

Physics, quantum mechanics, the workings of atoms and theories–is the play dramatic? You bet.  Because all three characters are so invested in their work and how it could play out in Nazi Germany, yes, there is drama and tension, and at times it’s gripping thanks to an excellent cast in spite of a production that is confusing and murky.

The director Katrina Darychuk is young and needs a lot more experience directing before she should be assigned to such an intricate, complex play. The characters wander around the set and rarely deal directly with each other at close quarters. Are they supposed to be like atoms or particles bouncing in space?  There are a few instances when the characters do touch each other but there is no weight to the scene when that happens to suggest this is of significance.  That makes no sense.

Lorenzo Savoini, who designed the set, the projections and lighting, must share the blame for this disappointing production. I have no idea why that hole is there until there is a projection of the atomic bomb going off, seemingly erupting from the hole almost at the end of the production. That’s a long way to go to justify the hole. Is the reflection in the mirror distorted because memory is distorted? Is the colour of it sepia because that’s the colour of memory?  And what about those criss-crossing shafts of light at the back in the darkness? Are those intersecting particles and atoms? So much symbolism when clarity is needed.

Comment. There is a lot of information between Heisenberg and Bohr, reminding each other of when they met complete with dates and every conference they went to and paper they wrote complete with dates, and the theories and the jokes they shared. And your head is swimming with the dates and trying to remember it all and finally you realize that this intricate way of talking was how they communicated.  Numbers, dates, theories was how they functioned. We don’t need to remember it. We need to be mindful that this is how they remembered it.  And yes there is drama as the details of their lives are revealed.

So a gifted playwright writes a complex, intriguing play; the acting is terrific, but ultimately the play is given a confusing, unhelpful production.

Soulpepper Theatre Company presents:

Began: April 6, 2019.

Closes: May 4, 2019.

Running Time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

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