The Physicists – June 2012

6/10

By Friedrich Dürrenmatt, in a new version by Jack Thorne

Directed by Josie Rourke

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 21st June 2012

I’m wary of European writing; it tends to the obscure and dull, and while this was undoubtedly a very funny play, it did have its low points for me, superb performances notwithstanding. Three physicists are housed in an asylum; two of them are convinced they’re Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, while the third actually is Johann Wilhelm Möbius who’s gone mad simply through being a physicist. With two of their nurses dead, and the public prosecutor getting restless, what will happen to the three men? And what has all this got to do with the debate about the responsibility of scientists in the modern world?

The set was almost completely white. The back wall was a mass of doors; the three main doors were helpfully numbered 1, 2 and 3, while the rest of the space was filled with similar doors, some on their sides to fit in the gaps. There were two stubs of brick wall on either side, with megaphone speakers high up – these were never used. Above it all were serried ranks of institutional lights, four rows of five. A table and chair were placed towards the back of the stage and in front of the middle door, while a 60s style armchair with a high curving back, and a matching footstool were on our left. Front right was another round table with a carved wooden chair, all in white. There was a muted green wastepaper basket by the table, a small light on it, and a table and light over by the armchair. The only splashes of colour were the bowl of red apples on this round table – very vivid in this setting – and a huge portrait leaning against the right hand wall. It showed an older man with wire rimmed glasses and a white moustache. The painting also had a hidden drinks cupboard.

The play began in the dark. When the lights went up, a body was lying on the stage in front of us, the body of an attractive blond in a nurse’s uniform. She was clearly dead, and the others present revealed themselves to be a police inspector, his assistants – one medical, one photographical – and a very stern senior nurse for whom all sorts of pleasure were definitely forbidden! They went through the procedures for dealing with a dead body, finally removing the corpse altogether, leaving only a red taped line to show where she had been, and there was a lot of humour all through this section. The inspector then met Newton, who also kept us entertained for a while with his intelligent and barbed comments. The ‘perpetrator’ of the murder, Albert Einstein, was unavailable at this point, though the strains of his violin playing were just discernible from behind the wall; this was his way of calming down. Newton had also murdered his nurse some three months earlier, and his residency in an insane asylum had obviously provided the perfect antidote to arrest and a different form of imprisonment.

The inspector’s investigation petered out after a chat with the institution’s founder and chief psychiatrist Dr von Zahnd, played by Sophie Thompson, recently a marvellous Mrs Hardcastle in She Stoops To Conquer at the National. Her portrayal of Dr von Zahnd involved a hump that would not have disgraced the most outrageous Richard III, and her shambling gait, pale face and clinical manner made me think of a cross between Ygor and Baron Frankenstein. She must win awards for these performances, surely! Her explanations for the murders and assurances that it wouldn’t happen again – the only other physicist left in this part of the institution, Möbius, was entirely harmless – appeared to satisfy the inspector, and the geniuses were left alone to their madness.

The first half culminated in the murder of another nurse, this time Möbius’s, following a visit from his ex-wife and their sons. She had remarried, and was heading off to some distant islands in the Pacific with her new husband, who was a missionary. She wanted to say goodbye before she left for good, and the stress of this news seemed to affect Möbius badly. He threw a fit of madness, throwing off his clothes, pouring body lotion all over himself, and generally behaving badly. His ex was glad to leave, and with Dr von Zahnd’s reassurance that Möbius would still be cared for at this expensive facility, she left with a clear conscience.

Möbius’s nurse was well aware that he’d been faking his madness, and now she wanted to marry him and help him achieve the greatness she knew he deserved. This prospect was too horrific for him and so he strangled her with her own belt, leaving her body in almost exactly the same position as the first body we saw, as outlined by one of the policemen in red tape. The second half therefore started in a similar way to the first, with a dead body on the floor (played by the same actress) and the police beginning their investigation. At least the inspector now knew where the brandy was concealed.

After this second body was cleared away, the play moved into a different phase, with male security guards, sorry, nurses, arriving to replace the women – mind you, there was only one female nurse left alive. These men set up the dinner table for the three inmates and left them to it, allowing us to hear their private conversation. It turned out that Einstein and Newton were, indeed, faking it, each having been sent to the asylum by their government to observe Möbius and learn what they could about his scientific discoveries. Newton, himself a respected physicist, was from a totalitarian country, while Einstein, another physicist in disguise, was from a more democratic country, but one where scientists had very little real power. The rest of the play was largely a debate about the responsibility of scientists for the information they discovered, and frankly this bit was rather dull. There was a final twist, not entirely unexpected, which made the whole debate irrelevant, and that was that.

I enjoyed much of this play, and the performances were terrific, but the style and theme weren’t to my taste. I find this kind of discussion too ethereal, lacking pragmatism, as if going over and over these issues can somehow resolve them. The debate itself is valid and can be interesting, but I prefer to be connected to it through caring about the characters, which didn’t happen here. Still a good production, though, and an interesting choice from the new artistic director.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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