Stimulating new version of Michael Frayn’s ‘Copenhagen’ by Indra’s Net Theater

The play focuses on a 1941 meeting between two internationally respected physicists, one Danish, one German, who were once colleagues but ended up on opposing sides in World War II.

Aaron Wilton, Nancy Carlin and Robert Ernst in Indra’s Net Theater’s Copenhagen. Photo: David Rowland

Berkeley’s Indra’s Net Theater is now staging playwright Michael Frayn’s illustrious, award-winning drama, Copenhagen. The play, well directed by Bruce Coughran (Indra’s Net’s artistic director) is the first American production of a newly revised-version (2018). The celebrated Copenhagen is based on the 1941 meeting between two internationally respected physicists, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in Copenhagen. It is an intellectually stimulating evening that imaginatively explores science, war, morality and the human heart.

Niels Bohr (1885–1962), winner of the 1922 Nobel Prize in physics, was a Danish physicist who made vital early contributions to the understanding of atomic structure and quantum theory. His former assistant and younger friend, the German national, Werner Heisenberg (1901–1976), also a renowned Nobel winner, is best known for his “Uncertainty Principle.”

After World War II broke out in Europe, and Germany invaded Denmark, Bohr and Heisenberg found themselves on opposing sides of the war and the race to develop atomic weapons. In 1943, Bohr, a half-Jew, and his wife escaped from Denmark to the United States, immediately before the Nazis sought to round up and capture Denmark’s Jewish population. While in the U.S., Bohr worked on the atomic bomb project in Los Alamos. Heisenberg remained in Germany as the head of Germany’s nuclear reactor program, where he researched atomic technology but did not pursue the development of an atom bomb.

Fundamentally, Copenhagen attempts to understand why Heisenberg (played by Aaron Wilton), made the arduous trip from Germany to Denmark in 1941 to visit his former mentor, Bohr (Robert Ernst) and Bohr’s wife Margrethe (Nancy Carlin). Did Heisenberg want to discuss his moral objections toward scientists working on nuclear weapons? Did he want to flaunt his and his nation’s success to his erstwhile professor? Or was perhaps Heisenberg concerned for Bohr’s safety?

Frayn (Noises Off, Democracy) meticulously researched the meeting through all sources then available to him and based the first version of his play upon them. It was staged in London’s West End in 1998, then on Broadway in 2000, and by Indra’s Net Theater in 2013. However, in light of the fracas caused by the original production among the scientific community, those who knew the two, and the generally intellectually curious, much more information was declassified, letters were newly released, and interviews held, which did help to elucidate the subject. Yet, the new version, though clearer, is not dispositive of the contents of the scientists’ fateful meeting.

Copenhagen is presented in a non-linear fashion. So time is malleable; at times, one character may be musing aloud in the years after the reunion, unaware of the other two on stage, or the three may actually be meeting in Copenhagen in 1941. Margrethe comments, sometimes as a participant, but also sporadically as an observer, on the actions and words of the two physicists. Occasionally, Bohr and Heisenberg name-drop and lapse into scientific jargon, but happily, one will remind the other to speak plainly so that Margrethe will understand. (A bit of sexism there, since Margrethe typed all her husband’s scientific papers and appeared to be quite conversant and knowledgeable in physics.)

The two and one-half hour (one intermission) weighty production is well-acted, though simply staged. It is a bit dense at times and requires the audience’s full attention. But those with a curious mind and those who seek to understand human dynamics will be well rewarded.