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.
If you are interested in buying the play text or other related books, we’d be delighted if you choose to purchase them by following the links below. We will earn a small commission on every book you purchase, which helps to keep the podcast going. Through our selected partners Bookshop.org and Blackwell’s you will also be supporting independent bookshops. Thank you.
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.
The dramatic tragedy of a wife who murders her own two sons in a desperate act of grief and revenge remains as disturbing and deeply moving as when it was written nearly 2,500 years ago. Medea by Euripides is timeless not only because of our fascination with Medea’s horrific crime, but for the poetry of its language, and its unflinching portrayal of a woman all but powerless in a patriarchal world. The play was recently revived at the National Theatre with a stunning performance by Helen McCrory in the title role, which is now available to view on the National Theatre at Home. I’m joined by renowned classical scholar Edith Hall to explore our enduring fascination with Medea.
The main characters in Nina Raine’s play Consent are barristers contesting a brutal rape case. As the case unfolds the lawyers’ marriages come unravelled and they themselves cross the line of honour or even of the law. Consent explores some of the most charged issues of our time: the sources of sexual betrayal and violence, the ambiguities of consent, and the failings of the justice system to account proportionally or sensitively with cases of sexual abuse. I am delighted and honoured to be joined in this episode by the author of Consent, Nina Raine, and by actor Adam James, who appeared in the National Theatre production in the role of Jake.
Footnotes Volume 2 is a selection of facts and observations culled from the library of information that we’ve compiled to accompany each of the plays in the past ten episodes. These include fascinating bits of trivia as well as more extended exploration of specific aspects of the plays. A smorgasbord of dramatic intelligence befitting of the best kind of Footnote.
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 …