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.
It is 1789 and a group of convicts in the newly-founded colony of Botany Bay in Australia are assembled to put on a production of George Farquhar’s Restoration Comedy The Recruiting Officer. The true story of this unlikely theatrical enterprise is the subject of Timberlake Wertenbaker’s award-winning play, Our Country’s Good, which premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 1988 almost exactly 200 years after the events it portrays. The play is a vivid portrait of the volatile new settlement in New South Wales, which raises timeless questions about what makes for a country’s good: the exercise of justice, the iniquities of class, the value of education and culture, and particularly of the redemptive power of theatre itself.
It made complete logical sense to follow our last episode on The Recruiting Officer with this wonderful play, and even more sense to invite Director Matt Beresford back to talk us through it.
George Farquhar’s rollicking Restoration Comedy The Recruiting Officer is ostensibly a portrait of officers engaged in the nefarious art of impressing men into the army in the country town of Shrewsbury, but it is as much a tale of the local ladies themselves recruiting for lovers and husbands. The classic comic satire of love and war, and sex and deception was first performed at Drury Lane in 1706, and went on to become one of the most frequently performed plays of the 18th century and a staple of education curricula and theatre programming ever since.
Director Matt Beresford joins us to assess the ‘recruiting officers” respective strategies and successes.
Tom Stoppard’s ambitious new play Leopoldstadt is a sweeping work of history and ideas which charts the diaspora and decline of an Austrian Jewish family through the convulsive events of the first half of the twentieth century. It addresses profound moral questions of identity, memory and prejudice that are insistently relevant in our time. It is not only a towering intellectual achievement, it is also very personally poignant because it is based partly on Stoppard’s own remarkable family history.
Leopoldstadt opened in the West End in January 2020, only to be closed prematurely by the pandemic a few weeks later. Happily it has returned to the London stage this Autumn, and I am privileged and delighted to talk in this episode with the director of the London productions, playwright Patrick Marber.
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 …