TAPAC Theatre, Western Springs, Auckland

30/05/2012 - 10/06/2012

Production Details

‘Frayn makes ideas zing and sing in this play.’ – Daily Telegraph  

Jennifer Ward-Lealand, Simon Kane and Bruce Phillips star in a dramatic revival of Michael Frayn’s award-winning play COPENHAGEN directed by British newcomer Alex Bonham.  

Seventy years ago the head of the German Atomic Research programme, Werner Heisenberg, sought out the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr. They were old friends but their countries were at war and the only thing known for certain about the meeting was that it ended their friendship. Four years later after frenzied research on both sides the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.  Why did Heisenberg come? To spy, to betray, to bargain or to broker one of the boldest deals in history?

The play has garnered critical acclaim winning the Evening Standard Best Play Award in London, the Tony Award in New York, and the Prix Moliere, and has been performed all over the world since its premiere in London in 1998.

It was originally performed in New Zealand ten years ago and is ripe for revival. The newspapers are once again dominated by new research into the atom that has turned Einstein’s theories on their head. Meanwhile Japan struggles to recover from nuclear disaster.

Back in 1941 a handful of atomic scientists held the future of the human race in their hands. The question was what they were going to do with this power.

‘Endlessly fascinating’ – New York Times

31 May-10 June, 2012,
TAPAC, 100 Motions Road, Western Springs, Auckland.
Show dates:
Wednesday 30th May 7.30pm (preview)
Thursday 31st May 7.30pm
Friday 1st June 7:30pm
Saturday 2nd June 2pm & 7.30pm
Sunday 3rd June 4.30pm
Tuesday 5th June 7.30pm
Wednesday 6th June 7.30pm
Thursday 7th June 7.30pm
Friday 8th June 7.30pm
Saturday 9th June 2pm & 7.30pm
Sunday 10th June 4.30pm

Adult $35.00
Concession (Senior/Child/Student with valid ID) $28.00
Preview $25.00

Book tickets at TAPAC website or phone TAPAC (09) 845 0295. 

Niels Bohr - Bruce Phillips
Werner Heisenberg - Simon Kane
Margrethe Bohr - Jennifer Ward-Lealand
Creative Team
Set - Rachael Walker
Lighting - Jane Hakaraia
Original Music - DK Chang

Historical drama richly rewards concentration

Review by Janet McAllister 04th Jun 2012

This excellent revival – 11 years after an Auckland Theatre Company production – is stupendous intellectual stimulation, wonderfully presented and unapologetically wordy. Like Tom Stoppard’s tragi-comedy Arcadia, Michael Frayn’s remarkable drama is a melange of physics, philosophy and history, brimming with ideas and the connections between them.

It centres on a real-life mystery: why did Werner Heisenberg – head of a German nuclear programme and Niels Bohr’s erstwhile protege – visit Bohr and his wife, Margrethe, in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen in 1941? [More


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Physics, History, and the Atomic Bomb

Review by Rosabel Tan 03rd Jun 2012

Sometimes a play will continue to work on you long after you’ve left the theatre. I don’t mean that the memory lingers, though this happens too, but that the experience continues to grow and transform, the seed of what was planted onstage blossoming over time.

A digression: Adaptation is one of my favourite films, but I hated it the first time I saw it. It irritated me, I didn’t understand the end, and what a fool I was. A week later I found myself still thinking about it, so I watched it again and realised that Kaufman was a genius and the film was a masterpiece. Copenhagen, for me, lies in the same realm. [More]


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Passionately cerebral gripping yarn

Review by Nik Smythe 01st Jun 2012

The noted German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg is wholly revered in physics circles, though his personal politics in relation to the Nazis and in particular his agenda regarding nuclear fission technology is still hotly debated. 

Michael Frayn’s densely cerebral 1998 play addresses this issue by placing Heisenberg and his Danish mentor, the eminent Niels Bohr, and Bohr’s beloved wife and typist Margrethe, in a posthumous arena where they argue their respective points on the matter in a concerted effort to uncover the definitive truth. 

Rachael Walker’s stark and ethereal set promotes the premise that these characters are arguing their cases in a sort of cerebral purgatory. A grey-carpeted circular dais, lazy-susan like (though it doesn’t physically spin), underneath which are crammed stacks of string-bound manila folders and worn out shoes.  A circle of matching grey carpet surrounds the central disc. The only other set items are three small stools. Together they seem to represent the nucleus, electron and proton that form your basic split atom, being the central focus and literal basis of all nuclear physics. They are also used occasionally for sitting on. 

Simon Kane plays an effusive, self-assured yet eternally questioning Heisenberg, wunderkind founder of Quantum Mechanics and the Uncertainty Principle by the age of 25. 

Bruce Phillips plays Bohr with the down-to-earth air of European hospitality; playful in a civilized adult way, sternly authoritative,if and when he sees fit.  Dubbed the Pope of theoretical physics by his contemporaries, Bohr’s work in the twenties was essentially reigning in the gushing wells of haphazard genius presented by his junior colleagues, of whom he regards Heisenberg as the most haphazard, and the most prone to genius. 

Jennifer Ward-Lealand plays a proud, forthright Margrethe Bohr, renowned ‘perfect hostess’ and proverbial nucleus to Bohr’s circling electron.  Niels frequently urges Werner to speak in plain language so Margrethe can understand, which conveniently extends to being comprehensible to the audience (kind of like Dr. Who’s companions). 

I imagine the script must read quite dryly on the page for the most part, but the energy and ardour with which the cast infuses their characters illustrates how a simple attitudinal perspective can render the endless surmising, supposition and algebraic headaches of a topic like nuclear physics quite engaging; exciting even.

The pointed assertions and accusations of the ethereal trio are delivered with briskly paced burning passion, but this is not a tawdry soap-opera love triangle or any such petty sentiment.  This is high drama, the stakes being nothing less than accurate understanding of science’s most terrible capabilities, and the resulting future of the world and its people.

At the human level, the crucial question is what Werner’s intention was when he famously paid the Bohrs a visit in Copenhagen in 1941.  Namely, was he trying to build a bomb or simply, as he claims, a nuclear reactor for a cleaner and more efficient power source?  His assertion of innocence echoes another controversial figure of his time, filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl who, like Heisenberg, did not leave Germany yet was never a member of the Nazi party.

His own Nobel Prize-winning Uncertainty Principle shows that the more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa.  As the trajectory of atoms, planets or galaxies are thusly indeterminate to a precise degree, so are the trio’s own recollections and motivations surrounding Werner’s fateful visit, as they repeatedly revisit that fateful day with fresh perspectives based on new evidence.

This purgatorial setting forgives theatrical elements that might otherwise be distracting, such as the apparent incongruity between their relative ages – If Werner is the correct age, then Phillips’ Niels seems more than 16 years his senior as he was, and Ward-Lealand’s Margrethe seems somewhat young.  If anything it actually contributes to the eerie post-existential realm in which the unwinnable, imperfectly circular debate rages on like a reactor that’s achieved critical mass.

Meanwhile, the British accents of the respectively Danish and German characters belie that this is the conceptual impression of a playwright, and as such the views expressed by the cast are not necessarily those of their real-life counterparts. 

Alex Bonham’s keen direction has their locally produced avatars cracking along with alarming articulation, surprisingly coherent for such high-end intellectual fare, dumbed-down-for-the-simple-wife or no.  The cast themselves are to be commended for a wholly convincing depiction of intellects, from Margrethe’s studiously informed position to Eisenberg’s brand of pioneering genius which most of us couldn’t hope to imagine. 

The occasional soundtrack, original post-classical music by Howard Jang, has a dramatic tone that feels contemporaneous with the key time period of the 1940s (the timeline jumps around throughout between the early 20s and ‘now’).

The press blurb asserts that “…no-one has been able to give a credible explanation of what happened that strange night.  Until now.” Actually, there are a few fairly credible sounding possibilities, the main two being that Heisenberg either was or was not intentionally developing a nuclear bomb for the Nazis.  There is just no way of knowing for certain which credible answer is the correct one due to indeterminable factors. 

Thus, the most conclusive result of this rigorous examination is that principally – much as it may sound like, and be frequently employed as, a feeble excuse for bad behaviour – the fact remains that nothing can ever be entirely certain.  That said, and for a play that contains little to no noticeable swearing, sex or violence, reports of capgun battles and nuclear holocausts notwithstanding, Copenhagen is a remarkably gripping yarn.


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