image: Bob Klakowich as Niels Bohr, photo credit Scott Henderson, Henderson Images
In about 2004 I saw a production of Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen performed in the round and directed by Caroline Baillie of Critical Stage Theatre, in the atrium of a Queen’s University building dedicated to creative ways of doing engineering education. My memory of that production is overwhelmingly of circling and cycling, re-examining a memory from various directions with the characters orbiting each other like atomic particles.
Copenhagen is now on stage at Walterdale Theatre, in a production directed by Martin Stout on a set designed by Leland Stelck. With its gently-thrust stage floor and intimate audience seating the Walterdale space provides the opportunity for a more personal encounter with the characters and their questions and uncertainties, despite the Covid precautions of the 2-meter moat and the dispersed audience.
It’s mostly a recollective piece, with re-creations and re-tellings of meetings in the early 1920s, in 1941, and in 1947. The characters say directly early on that they are now all “dead and gone”, and they also help to anchor the individual scenes/memories in time by frequently mentioning the year. The characters are Niels and Margrethe Bohr, the Danish physicist and his wife/collaborator (Bob Klakowich and Donna Call), and Werner Heisenberg, the younger German physicist (Kendrick Sims). Most of the memories are set in the Bohrs’ home in Copenhagen or on the walking paths nearby, a city that in 1941 was occupied by Germany and under constant surveillance.
I was pleasantly surprised to find myself laughing out loud periodically through this performance. Klakowich and Call’s dry delivery of ironic and witty lines, Sims’ expressive eye-rolling, and particularly Call’s full-body indignation when her contributions are ignored make the most of the precise and articulate script. The opening-night audience was full of sympathy for the Bohrs’ bitterness and rage at their occupiers in general, and at Heisenberg’s clumsy attempts to re-create their earlier social connections without acknowledging the current abyss between them. “Should I have Margrethe sew a yellow star on my ski jacket?” Bohr spits out in response to his colleague’s suggestion of an excursion to Norway. Later in the play, I came to identify with Heisenberg as well, trying to do the work he cared about under a hostile and then horrific regime, trying to minimize the long-term damage to humanity and hopefully looking forward to the prospect of a future not only after the war but after the Nazi regime.
Stelck’s set, and the props (Debbie Tyson), costumes (Megan Reti), and multimedia design (Darrell Portz) provide effective support for the action reminiscent of 1941 but not clearly rooted in time or space, while lighting (Adam Luijks) and sound (Dylan Mackay) contribute to the shifts in mood, with one particularly chilling air-raid siren.
I kept thinking of present-day Київ (Kyiv), but I also kept thinking of conflict scenarios closer to home. And the characters of Copenhagen reminded me of resilience, of scientists and engineers asking questions about the ethics of their work, and of hope. All of which I appreciated.
Copenhagen is playing through Saturday March 19th at Walterdale Theatre in Edmonton. Mask and vaccine requirements are still in place to protect performers, audience members, and other volunteers. Tickets are available at Tix on the Square, and at the door half an hour before show time.