Frayn's 'Copenhagen' has long been a favourite play of mine: its exploration of the motives and obsessions of great scientific minds (Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg) is precisely the sort of thing that gets me going in the theatre, and its attempt to dramatise complex scientific concepts (complementarity, uncertainty) is intriguing and arresting. And, generally, this was a fine production.
I’d like to focus on a single incongruous element, however: above the stage were hung three huge, white rings, intertwining with each-other. These rings could light up with a bright white light, and before the show lights travelled round and round the rings creating an interesting visual effect - indeed, a rather distracting visual effect: there were moments in the performance when it was quite difficult to watch what the actors were doing (not much – it’s quite a sedate play) due to the gymnastics of the ring-lights.
This is a good example of a case in which a potentially-compelling design-element has been implemented poorly. Here is a play about the meeting of two great physicists which explores to some degree their scientific ideas. And above the stage you have a huge contraption that could be used at specific points to reinforce that message. However, the device was only used a single time for that purpose. The rest of the time it was more a distraction than a help – something one audience member commented on after the show: “That thing was driving me crazy!”
A quote from Louise Kennedy’s ‘Boston Globe’ review is enlightening:
“above their heads and ours, three giant translucent loops, in the familiar configuration that says "atom," pulse regularly but unpredictably with flashes of light. Each particle follows its own path, crossing or avoiding or affecting the paths of others, in a pattern more intricate and more variously influenced than an observer can grasp.”
If an observer can’t grasp any reason why the lights are moving in the way they move, and therefore can’t link them meaningfully to the stage-action, then the apparatus will not convey anything other than “atom” – and this strikes me as an effect that could be achieved otherwise without the complex gadgetry.
One can only imagine that, with the extremely sparse set and bare staging, the rings might have cost a significant proportion of the production budget. It is a shame, therefore, to see them so poorly used.