Just as the behavior of particles on the quantum scale is mystifying, human relationships can become similarly complex as well — especially in the context of war.
“Copenhagen,” a play written by British playwright Michael Frayn, explores the 1941 meeting between the two landmark figures behind modern physics: Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. The two scientists were both involved in the nuclear weapon construction program in the Allied and Axis camps, respectively, during World War II. The play follows Bohr and Heisenberg’s uncertain relationship and their respective motives, as each pioneer in quantum mechanics defies the then-current framework of classical physics.
“The play is beautiful in its simplicity,” said Kit Lea Cheang ’19, the show’s producer and a staff reporter for the News. “You have an elegant set, a brilliant script that carries itself and actors who bring their own to the three characters.”
Attendee Michael Gu ’17 said that in retrospect, he was attracted to the show because it was not only about science or a particular physics theory, but also the fact that Bohr and Heisenberg elevated physics to the height of philosophy and expanded interest in the field. He added that while he enjoyed the play in general, one of his favorite parts was how it illustrated the relationship between science and politics in the context of World War II.
Hannah Kazis-Taylor ’19, the show’s director, said the play can be interpreted in many different ways. She noted that changes, such as emphasizing different ideas in the play’s plot to greater and lesser extents as well as the way the play is staged, can leave different themes that the audience can pick up on. Similarly, she added that her current interpretation of the play is far removed from what she originally envisioned it to be.
Kazis-Taylor also underscored the interactive process between the actors and director during the play’s development. These interactions were especially interesting because the abstract nature of the play’s text which leaves many points open to interpretation, she said, adding that she found it beneficial to hear different actors’ interpretations.
“During auditions, I looked for actors who were talented and whose energy fit my interpretation of the play’s characters,” Kazis-Taylor said.
Jae Shin ’17, who plays Bohr in the play, said the production is special because it argues that people cannot always assign one role to others in their lives. Shin noted, for example, that in preparing for his role as Bohr, he had to consider whether Heisenberg was an intellectual colleague, a family member or a nuclear arms competitor.
Kazis-Taylor said that Shin came to his audition having read neither a summary nor any part of the play, making him the least prepared of the almost 30 actors who auditioned for parts. Yet the warmth of Shin’s personality convinced her that he would make a good Bohr, she said.
“What struck me most about this play was the idea that such large pieces of history could have been decided by such a small event as a conversation, things that we will never quite know about or understand, yet have made such a large impact on the world,” said Noah Stetson ’18, who plays Heisenberg. “How absurd it is that the world is the way that it is.”
“Copenhagen” first premiered in 1998 at the National Theatre in London, and ran April 6–8 at the Hopper Cabaret.