“Michael Frayn’s tremendous new play is a piece of history, an intellectual thriller, a psychological investigation and a moral tribunal in full session.” That’s a review given by Sunday Times when the play originally opened in London in the year 1998. I could not agree more.
The play moves around the attempt of spirits of Neils Bohr, Margrethe Bohr and Werner Heisenberg to find out why did Werner Heisenberg mysteriously visit Niels Bohr and his wife Margrethe in Copenhagen in the year 1941? What was his real motive and what exactly happened during that fateful walk of Neils and Werner that evening? The play tries to explore what could have happened during that historic meeting of two of world’s greatest nuclear physicists who were on the opposite sides during the World War II.
The play opens to the spirits of Neils Bohr (Tom Alter), Margrethe Bohr (Veera Abadan) and Werner Heisenberg (Vivek Tandon) waltzing to a beautiful symphony, their faces are covered with masks. This immediately captures the attention of the audience. As the music stops all three stand on a platform and disclose that they are dead and their spirits have come together to try and find out what happened on that fateful evening of 1941 and what were the implications of that meeting on the world at large.
Neils and Werner are two of the greatest Physicists. If you remember your school days then you will remember that we had study the atomic model and do you remember what is was called? Bohr’s Atomic Model. Well, that Bohr is Neils Bohr, one of the protagonists of the play. It was such a “eureka” moment for me when I realised the connection.
Anyway, coming back to play, it was actually an intellectual thriller. It was so much fun to watch Werner getting in “foot in mouth” situation right from the moment he enters the house of Neils and Margrethe, asking wrong questions, making wrong comments and realising he is making a fool of himself. As also Neils making nasty politically incorrect comments for the ears of German officials who he believes to have bugged his house.
There is awkwardness between the three of them despite sharing really warm relationship before the war began or rather before they chose their sides. Werner looked up to Neils as a father figure and the feeling was mutual. He was treated like a family member when he was an intern with Neils in his early days.
The initial apprehension of Margrethe about having Werner as guest in the volatile situation of 1941 and he having chosen to be in Germany, melts away as the evening progresses. However, as the evening progresses the tension between the two great scientists goes on building and finally after their walk it reaches to a point where Neils almost unceremoniously drives Werner out of his house.
Rest of the play tries to explore what happened between the two that caused such extreme reaction of Neils. As the plot progresses, we come to know that Werner had proposed an idea which till then according to Neils was impossible reality. The idea finally leads to creation of nuclear bomb which caused destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Neils had never believed in possibility of Nuclear Fission theory could produce weapons for mass destruction. Whereas Werner was working on atomic reactor that would have produced Plutonium which would have helped Germany to build a nuclear bomb. However, being aware of the implications of such a bomb, he asks for so lesser funding from Hitler that Hitler almost does not believe in the programme and that was the end of German atomic bomb. However, simultaneously, a team of scientists were working on the idea in America to which Neils contributed, and his contribution actually triggered the Nagasaki bomb.
The play talks in depth about the moral implications of nuclear program and responsibility of the physicists. There is a beautiful scene where Werner vents out his frustration before Neils. He says after the war, during his visit to America in 1949, a lot of physicists would not even shake their hands with him. Hands that actually built the nuclear bomb would not touch his. Hypocrisy at it’s best, I guess.
There is another beautiful scene where the two of these physicists are having argument on how could Werner make mistake in calculation. Neils is ridiculing him for that. So Werner retorts that even he did not realise that the chain reaction could produce a weapon of mass destruction. How could he have missed it. To which Neils answers that he missed it because he was not trying to make a bomb and Werner tells him, precisely for the same reasons he made mistakes in his research, because contrary to the belief of everyone he was not trying to build a bomb. Later on we come to know that the intention of Werner to visit Neils is to dissuade Neils from contributing to the American project. However, Neils misunderstands him and thinks Werner is actually trying to build nuclear bomb for Germany.
Margrethe plays a connecting bond between the two of them. She loves both these men. One man, who is her husband and the other one she has always treated like her son. All through her life she tried to figure out why Werner visited them after making his choices. Was he there to show off what he had achieved staying in Germany? What was his intention? And what happened between the two men that caused such friction between the two. Her commentary on their attitudes maintains the flow of the story. Without her the play would have fallen apart.
It is almost a three hour long play. But it captivated me till the end. I am not making a general statement because I saw a lot audience members leave the auditorium during the interval. But let me tell it is not at all due to bad script or bad performance or anything about the play. It was just too much of science for them to handle.
The energy of all three actors was just incredible and the subject was so complex. There is so much of emotional drama, it is a draining exercise. But the way all of them carried it off was amazing. Especially when Neils and Werner were discussing Nuclear Fission theories, chain reaction and atomic mass of Uranium isotopes and all that jargon, not one moment it felt that they are acting it out; it was as if all through their lives they have been doing this. Yes, there were certain places where the actors forgot their lines, especially during the complex discussions but they helped each other to come back so smoothly that one would not even realise that they made a mistake. The discussions reminded me of my tormenting college days when I had to study Physics. I wish I had watched the play that time. I would not have hated the subject so much. In all probabilities I would have fallen in love with the subject. It was an intellectual orgasm experience for me.
It is going to play again on 15th & 16th of November at NCPA Experimental at 7p.m. If you have not watched it yet, you must try and catch it on one of these days. A must watch, if not for anything else, watch it for sheer energy and integrity and conviction of the actors and of course the powerful script.