018 – Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn
It is September 1941. German physicist Werner Heisenberg is visiting his friend and former colleague Niels Bohr at his home in Copenhagen. But this is not an ordinary meeting. Denmark is occupied by the forces of the Third Reich, and Heisenberg is a member of the German scientific team working on the potential applications of nuclear fission. Bohr is half Jewish. Both men are under surveillance by the Gestapo. What is the reason for their meeting at this charged time?
This is the central question of Michael Frayn’s award-winning play Copenhagen. Why Heisenberg visited Bohr in 1941 has remained a mystery ever since, particularly as the accounts given by each of them over the years that followed were vague and divergent. Interest in the import of their meeting is heightened because of what was at stake as Hitler’s armies overran Europe. What were the two men’s respective roles in the development of lethal nuclear weapons? Did they compare notes on the practical possibilities or moral responsibilities? How did Heisenberg reconcile scientific or personal ethics with collaboration with the Nazi regime? And what about Bohr’s prospects as the son of a Jewish mother with the program of mass exportation intensifying? All of these questions, and more, are explored in Michael Frayn’s absorbing play.
Copenhagen premiered at the National Theatre in 1998, winning the Evening Standard Award for Best Play that year. It transferred to the West End in the following year, and opened on Broadway the year after that, also winning the Tony award for Best Play. The play has been revived many times since and is scheduled to be presented again later in January 2021 at the Theatre Royal Bath.
The play has also been made into a BBC television film, the text adapted and directed by Howard Davies, with Daniel Craig, Stephen Rea and Francesca Annis in the cast
I am delighted and honoured to be joined in this episode by the playwright himself.
Michael Frayn is a bestselling and award-winning novelist, journalist, screen writer and playwright. After reading Philosophy at Cambridge, he worked as a reporter and columnist for the Guardian and the Observer newspapers. His eleven novels include Headlong, the story of the discovery of a lost painting by Bruegel, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction; Spies, which won the 2002 Whitbread Novel Award; and Skios published in 2012.
His numerous full-length plays include Donkeys’ Years, Clouds, Balmoral, Benefactors, Democracy, Afterlife, and of course arguably the funniest farce ever written, Noises Off. His collection of playlets, Matchbox Theatre was published in 2014, and performed at the Hampstead Theatre in 2015. He is also renowned for his masterly translations of Chekhov, having learned Russian while doing his National Service. He also wrote the screenplay for the film Clockwise, starring John Cleese.
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The Footnotes to our episode on Copenhagen include more on the atomic metaphors that resonate through the play, the drama that played out at Farm Hall country house in 1945, and the darkness of Elsinore.
Caryl Churchill’s stunning play Escaped Alone presents an ordinary scene of four women of a certain age chatting over tea in a suburban garden. Of course not all is as tranquil as it appears, for each of the women harbour dark personal anxieties, and from time to time one of them steps away from the garden to share news with us about apocalyptic disasters that have struck the world. Produced at the Royal Court in 2016, Churchill’s vision of a world overcome by collective disaster has proved to be extraordinarily prophetic. Joining me to explore our first Churchill play is Professor Elaine Aston, author of a monograph on Caryl Churchill as well as the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Caryl Churchill.
Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey caused a sensation when it appeared at the Theatre Royal Stratford in 1958 because of its frank portrayal of a working-class, single mother and daughter, as well as its bold representations of a mixed-race relationship and a young homosexual as a central character. Delaney sent her first play to the renowned director Joan Littlewood who helped develop it into an historic production which went on to the West End and Broadway. Professor Nadine Holdsworth helps us to explore the enduring power and relevance of the play.
Girl from the North Country is an extraordinary collaboration between the playwright Conor McPherson and the musician and song writer Bob Dylan. The result is a magical work where McPherson’s portrait of families struggling to survive in Depression America is transfigured into an uplifting theatrical experience by the ravishing period arrangements of Dylan’s songs.
The play opened at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2017 to a rapturous response and reviews, and was followed by runs in the West End and New York.
This is a very special episode, first because I am privileged to talk with none other than the play’s author Conor McPherson, and secondly because we have also been given kind permission to include several extracts from the original cast recording of the music from the first London production.
Before the theatres went dark this month I was lucky enough to see Caryl Churchill’s A Number at the Bridge, and spend more than seven hours in thrall to Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the National. Plus, some thoughts on what we miss when there is no theatre.
Another great mix of shows this month, from Tom Stoppard’s new play, to Ibsen, Beckett and newer plays in smaller London venues.
The January roundup included both classic plays, such as The Duchess of Malfi, Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters, as well as recent musicals Dear Evan Hansen and Girl from the North Country …