Review: ‘Copenhagen’ at Soulpepper Theatre

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  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

There has always been something about Michael Frayn’s three hander ‘Copenhagen’ which has always intrigued me. West End actors were keen on performing the piece. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but one of the characters mentions an important context involving all three which made me gasp along with other audience members sitting around me. After seeing Soulpepper’s production of Mr. Frayn’s complex play, tautly directed by Katrina Darychuk, I’ve now understood its fascination for actors and their desire to add this production to their resumes.

‘Copenhagen’ intensely focuses on a time from the second World War which sparked fear in the hearts of world nations. The setting for this story is 1941 where nations race to perfect The Bomb (a bleak and stark reminder of this at the top of Act 2). In September of that year Werner Heisenberg (Kawa Ada) came to Nazi occupied Copenhagen to give a speech where he met his former mentor Niels Bohr (Diego Matamoros) for a brief meeting which, according to the background notes, was brief and stormy. Heisenberg said he’d gone to the meeting to discuss his own questions about the German government having nuclear capability. Bohr drafted a letter he never sent to contest this and remembered no ethical hesitation or fear from Heisenberg. We are also introduced to Bohr’s wife, Margrethe (Kyra Harper) who periodically becomes a voice of reason in the heated discussion that ensues between the two men.

One will have to play close attention as the production itself is a heavy dialogue driven piece with a lot of scientific terminology. It is true that I didn’t understand anything about quantum physics but that didn’t matter at all and didn’t detract from my enjoyment.

What made this piece fascinating was watching Messrs. Ada and Matamoros and Ms. Harper manoeuvre themselves around Lorenzo Savoini’s raked playing area that felt like a trap with a black hole centre stage. As each of them spoke, it was almost as if we were able to enter inside their heads. What appeared to be a mirror at the back of the stage was slightly tilted over the playing area for Act One. During Act Two, the mirror was raised even higher where we can see the darkness and blackness of the hole.

Ms, Darychuk’s direction was sharply focused to keep us and our attention on the three actors and the various pictures they created on that stage. What I found worked nicely for me was the black hole added to the distance the characters felt when they may have been miles apart in their thoughts and reactions to each other. The pictures and moments created in the moving around on the stage were fascinating to watch where sometimes the actors were solo, sometimes two against one, husband and wife against the other. Once again, lighting effectively underscored the intensity of the scene and moment.

The chemistry between Ada, Matamoros and Harper heightened the intensity of the moment. Periodically, for some reason, I also felt this growing sense of dread within me as the performance continued especially into Act 2. When the audience returned after the intermission and sees the projection of the bomb exploding, I felt at once a lack and void within. To see this bomb explode made me wonder if the world is capable of creating a weapon of this massive destruction even today. I think we all know the answer to this question.

As Werner Heisenberg, Kawa Ada allowed me to see a man who struggles internally and visibly with what knowledge has given him. Heisenberg was a gifted scholar but also witnessed the atrocities and destruction of World War One at a young age. Ada’s conversations with Mr. Matamoros became quite heated as the play continued. Mr. Matamoros as Neils Bohr has become the paternal mentor and father figure for Heisenberg who must, at times, be stern with his protégé. Ms. Harper’s matronly Margarethe becomes that vocal support for her husband who must wisely bow out at moments where she allows the two men to discern what has transpired and whether ethical boundaries have been crossed during World War 2.

‘Copenhagen’ continues to May 4 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane in Toronto’s Historic Distillery District. For tickets, call 1-416-866-8666 or visit www.soulpepper.ca to purchase online and for further information.

Running time: One hour and 20 minutes with one intermission.

Photo of Diego Matamoros, Kyra Harper and Kawa Ada in performance taken by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The Cast: Kawa Ada, Kyra Harper, Diego Matamoros.

Director: Katrina Darychuk; Set, Projection and Lighting Designer: Lorenzo Savoini; Costume Designer: Gillian Gallow; Composer and Sound Designer: Richard Feren; Stage Manager: Rebecca Eamon Campbell; Science Consultants: Bob Logan and Chris Scholey