All the interval, all I could think was: oh boy. How am I going to talk about this thing?
It’s difficult to know where to start with this magical production of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, directed by Benji Osugo and produced by Lauren Liotti. It resists the usual standards and categories for theater. Copenhagen takes the form of a conversation between German physicist Werner Heisenberg, Danish physicist Neils Bohr, and Magrethe, Bohr’s wife. The three meet after the end of their lives to discuss their relationships, their careers, their responsibility (or lack thereof) for the creation of the atomic bomb, and the purpose behind a mysterious visit Heisenberg made to Copenhagen in 1941.
At the heart of this production were three powerhouse performers: Georgie Turner as Heisenberg, Anoushka Kohli as Bohr, and Georgia Luckhurst as Magrethe. Together they navigated the text—a beautiful but challenging combination of storytelling, repetitive dialogue, and science metaphors—with true elegance. Turner, a consummate character actress, was magnetic: electric with idiosyncrasy and charm. Kohli matched this energy with the steadier, quieter, but equally vivid counterpoint of an older man who has suffered oppression and loss. Luckhurst was at her best in the second act, when Magrethe begins to match intellects with the men. She struck the perfect note of smart sharpness to interrupt the play’s repetitions.
It’s a good thing the performances were strong, because they could not have been more exposed. The actors stood in the middle of a perfect circle with the sparsest of sets: a bare lightbulb, a square of white industrial flooring, and three white chairs. Visually, it was a masterclass in careful selection. Caelan Mitchell-Bennett, Viola Komedová, and Zoë du Bois conceived of a set which did so much with so little. The whitewash had an eerie, afterlife glow, apt for three deceased characters. But it was also a blank canvas which the actors could imagine into anything and anyplace they needed as they told their stories. The paint on the flooring chipped underfoot, creating flakes that drifted in the light—like the snow in Heisenberg’s favorite skiing metaphor or, more disturbingly, like the ash of an obliterated city. The technical and sound design, headed by Natasha Maurer, was just as precise. Piano music and colored, horizontal light gave variety and signaled shifts in place, time, and mood.
The drawback to this level of precision is that any superfluous element feels glaringly out of place. The mirrors around the edge of the audience, for instance, promised exciting visual effects but served no discernible purpose. The costumes felt like an afterthought, disconnected from the rest of the storytelling. These were the scant flaws I picked out in the occasional moments when Bohr and Heisenberg spiraled into their umpteenth disagreement about who said what and when and where and how and to whom, and I wondered why it mattered, and whether the play might be just a tiny bit too long.
I had one other question, and it was a question for the director. Throughout the play, the three actors whirled around the circular space, sometimes in choreographed movement sequences, sometimes carrying their chairs. Why so much spinning, I wondered about halfway through—and why that lightbulb in the center? Only on my way out did I realize how beautiful and perfect this was for a play about the structure of the atom.