Review: SUDS’ Copenhagen

The play, centred around quantum mechanics, is moving and brilliant

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Most people would be, justifiably, apprehensive about seeing a stage-play centred around theoretical physics and quantum mechanics.

The Sydney University Dramatic Society’s performance of Copenhagen at the Cellar Theatre dispelled all such apprehensions immediately. Throughout the two-hour runtime, I found myself hooked on every line of rapid fire dialogue; transfixed by the increasing complexity and illegibility of the of words and symbols on the chalkboard on the back of the stage.

Director Caitlin Williams skilfully weaved all the elements of the show together, representing the characters’ melancholy perfectly through sparse but well-timed musical cues and sound effects.

The plot of Copenhagen is non-linear; there is no recognisable protagonist or antagonist, and it is quite regularly unclear whether the characters are addressing each other, the audience, or simply talking to themselves. It carries a significant risk—less skilled actors with a less skilled director would not have been able to pull off a show that was as engaging or as easy to follow. But Thomas Hanaee (Werner Heisenberg), Patrick Sunderland (Niels Bohr) and Dani Maher (Margrethe Bohr) each excel in their respective roles.

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Hanaee captured the inner turmoil and moral ambiguity of Heisenberg perfectly. It was never jarring or unbelievable to hear him profess as Heisenberg that he was trying to prevent the building of a nuclear bomb by the Germans, whilst also expressing resentment at the fact that the Germans were not the first to build it. Similarly, the dramatic irony that the honourable and pacifistic Niels Bohr was (at least partially) responsible for the deaths caused by the atomic bomb, whilst the ethically ambiguous Heisenberg carried no responsibility, was executed nicely by both actors. Maher also excelled in her portrayal of a nuanced and deeply intelligent Margrethe Bohr. Her comedic timing elicited the greatest number of laughs from the audience, which is all the more impressive when one considers the grim mood that gripped large parts of the play. The three actors shared palpable chemistry and were a pleasure to watch.

The set design by Declan Coyle was a creative asset to the play, centring around a chalkboard situated at the back of the stage. As the play progressed, words and symbols drawn by Maher steadily filled the blank board, until so many words were written on top of each other that they became illegible. This mirrored the incomprehensibility that grew within Heisenberg’s own memories, as he tried harder to recall his motivations and intentions. The lightning design, by Lincoln Gidney was similarly well executed. I particularly appreciated the sound and musical cues throughout the play, put together by Henry Hulme. Can we please take a moment to acknowledge the banger that is Für Elise?

This play is incredibly thought provoking and engaging from start to finish. Copenhagen plays for the next two weeks in the Cellar Theatre and I urge you to go and see it.