Science under the microscope in Durrenmatt’s The Physicists

The Physicists – Donmar Warehouse, until the 21 July 2012 

Thomas Midgley Jr is not a name near to many people’s lips when asked about the most important scientific innovators of the twentieth century. Seemingly destined to be remembered solely as a speciality question in a pub quiz would appear a strange fate for a man whose contributions to science shaped the world and led him to being described as having a ‘greater environmental impact on the planet than any single organism in history’.

It is then unfortunate for Thomas Midgley Jr that the impact described was both an accidental consequence of his inventiveness and wholly negative in almost every conceivable aspect; for Thomas Midgely Jr is the man who came with the idea of adding lead to petrol. Not content with this world health hazard, his second invention was close to catastrophic, as he found a way to improve the process of refrigeration through a compound called Freon. In so doing he successfully managed to invent CFCs.

One can only imagine that after those two disastrous attempts at improving the world, poor Thomas Midgely Jr would have a great deal of sympathy for Johann Wilhelm Möbius, the scientist at the centre of Dürrenmatt’s farcical satire that poses questions on the burden of responsibility on scientists and the ability of state to understand and manage scientific developments. Indeed Möbius is so concerned with the potential capacity for destruction in his inventions that he decides it is better to feign insanity so that he is able to work on pure physics well away from the overbearing hand of the state.

Dürrenmatt wrote The Physicists in 1961, prefiguring the Cuban Missile Crisis but at a time when tensions between the Soviet Union and the West were reaching a new peak. The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remained fresh in the mind 15 years on, as societies across the world lived in the shadow of two countries committed to the real-politics of mutually assured destruction.

Charles Spencer, writing in The Telegraph, challenges the play’s value forty years on. It is a reasonable point at a time where the conflict between superstates has faded and the prospect of nuclear war has receded to be replaced by a more existential threat of individual extremists, dirty bombs and cyber-warfare. Josie Rourke’s production is never quite able to square this circle and throughout there remains the nagging sensation that one is watching a period piece; a very well-crafted and carefully staged absurdist drama that is fascinating but ultimately as clinical and sterile as its setting.

That is not to say that it cannot be enjoyed on its own merits. The quality is to the level that has come to be expected from a Donmar production. John Heffernman is superb in capturing the duality of Möbius’ character; drawing out the dignified trauma of being self-aware enough to understand that his brilliance can never realise its potential in a world where it will be handled by those with power but no understanding, but Heffernman also reveals the arrogance that afflicts many geniuses and causes them to underestimate the skill of the opponents, in this case hastening the final tragic denouement.

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Around Town: Next Week in London

The lack of an update for over a week is a sign that Civilian Theatre has been taking a well-earned break following the enduring trauma experienced by watching Babel. However the reviewing season kicks off again in earnest next week with three plays lined up, each of which I am quietly confident about.

Antigone has the enticing prospect of Christopher Ecclestone returning to the National Theatre after a 22-year absence. Performing in one the great plays of the classical era, Ecclestone has the craggy and worn features that seem ideally suited to play Creon, a man who has spent years charged with the responsibility of holding together the state over and above any call to personal desires. He is one of our great character actors who actually appears in a lot less work than you probably remember but whose appearance is usually a clue that we are going to be watching some quite special – he is superb as Derek Bentley in Let Him Have It; one of those rare films where you can feel the anger of injustice bubbling through every scene, and equally good in the seminal 90’s TV series, Our Friends in the North.   

The Physicists will be the next play under Josie Rourke’s tenure at the Donmar. Having scored a big hit with The Recruiting Officer but perhaps underwhelmed slightly for many with Making Noise Quietly, Rourke will be looking to come back strongly with Durrenmatt’s The Physicists. It is hard to think of a playwright, or indeed style, that has fallen more out favour in recent years than Durrenmatt’s slightly avant-garde, philosophical work. However I can remember being absolutely blown away by a production of The Visit and the staging possibilities that such a play open’s up. When you take time to sit back and survey London’s theatrical landscape do you realise the striking absence of such originality- even if plots and narrative can still remain freewheeling and anarchic, there is a sense that dramatically everything looks a little a bit conservative. Admittedly Complicite are still pushing boundaries but, for all the positive reviews, plays like Laura Wade’s Posh appear very formal in style. One hopes that a strong production of The Physicists will help start getting director’s to re-embrace the experimental in formal settings rather than feeling that experimental necessarily means site-specific pieces and audience engagement. Time was when director’s used a theatre to recreate an atmosphere, currently it feels that the audience aren’t trusted to suspend our disbelief and will only understand that we are in an abattoir if we see real cows hanging off hooks around us.

The Ninagawa’s Company production of Cymbeline at the Barbican promises to finally kick start what has been so far a rather disappointing World Stage Festival. Little more needs to be said about Babel, and Three Kingdoms, whilst interesting, did not set the world alight with a mixture of fantastic ideas and, at times, incoherent structure. Having previously missed all of Ninagawa’s English productions, I am tremendously excited by a company that has a global reputation for Shakespeare and a history of producing visually spectacular tableaux that meld together Shakespearian storytelling with traditional Japanese techniques. Cymbeline is a particualarly interesting choice of play, as it is one of Shakespeare’s more problematic narratives and seems to be one that is alighted on more frequently by companies that often take an angle slightly askance of the traditional – the last major London production being Kneehigh’s version at the Battersea Arts Centres, which included all its usual visual flair but perhaps provided a little too much fun over substance.

Stills from Ninagawa’s Cymbeline

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