“When the play first came out, a reviewer said it stretched their brain to breaking point and beyond,” says Henry Goodman. “I know exactly how they felt.”
Goodman is in the second week of rehearsals of the opening play in Sheffield Theatres’ Michael Frayn season. Copenhagen features only three actors, but it is a play on an epic scale. A discussion about the invention of the atom bomb, no less, the play takes physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg and puts them in a room in Copenhagen in 1941.
The meeting between the two men is rooted in historical fact. Frayn’s play, however, is set in an afterlife when both men have died and each recollects their version events. The Second World War put the two men on opposing sides, with Hitler’s Germany hopeful that Heisenberg would build an atomic bomb and bring a quick and successful end to their war.
Bohr, half-Jewish, was living in Denmark when the Nazis invaded. Heisenberg had been his protégé and what isn’t disputed is that they did meet in Copenhagen. Almost every other detail, however, is.
Was Heisenberg deliberately sabotaging his own work to keep an atomic bomb out of the hands of the Nazis? Did the old friends discuss the ramifications of their work in that meeting? It is a fertile ground for drama.
“It’s like learning Beethoven,” says Goodman, who plays Bohr. “But I think I am starting to find some fluency and discover the beats in the piece. It is one of our greatest playwrights at the very top of his game and it is thrilling to have the opportunity to do this piece.”
Copenhagen joins Democracy and Benefactors, along with several other events, to make the second season of work dedicated to a single playwright at Sheffield Theatres. After celebrating the career of David Hare last year, artistic director Daniel Evans turns his attention to Frayn, author of several prize winning novels, screenplays and perhaps best known for his hit play Noises Off, which is currently enjoying a five star revival at London’s Old Vic.
Copenhagen opened in London in 1998, running for 300 performances, before transferring to Broadway in 2000, where it won a Tony Award.
“It is full of wit and joy,” says Goodman. “People shouldn’t think that they will be watching a play full of equations and complicated theory. There are perhaps 20 lines in the hour and 40 minutes that are about the equations involved.
“It is an intellectual play, but at its heart is a human drama about these two brilliant men who were working on something that had a profound effect on human history.”
For Goodman, coming to Sheffield is a welcome return, after playing Tevye in the massively successful Fiddler on the Roof in 2006.
“This has been said time and again, but Sheffield theatres have a great standing in London, among actors, directors and audiences,” he says.“When I did Fiddler it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my professional career. The stage of the Crucible is one of the most rewarding spaces to act on in the country.”
Goodman says that Evans programming the Frayn season is a testament to the ambition of a regional theatre.
“While these aren’t new plays, they are incredibly relevant. We have the nuclear weapons issue raising its head in Iran, Israel, India, people are talking about democracy and what it means around the world. These plays couldn’t be more relevant right now,” he says. “It is a real testament to regional theatre that this season is taking place in Sheffield, now.”
The Michael Frayn season
Copenhagen: In 1941 Niels Bohr, leading quantum theorist of the time, and his former protege meet for the last time. Lyceum Theatre, to March 10.
Benefactors: David dreams of improving the lives of those living in an inner-city slum, but his dreams come crashing to earth in this award-winning comedy. Sheffield Studio, March 1 to 24.
Democracy: Willy Brandt is leader of a new coalition government and one of the most charismatic leaders in post-war politics. However, his plans are thrown into chaos in this Olivier Award-winning play. Crucible Theatre, March 8 to 31.
Throughout March there will also be a series of play readings of Frayn’s other work and an audience with the playwright on March 23. For full details call 0114 249 6000 or online at www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk