Stage set for science

Copenhagen cast. Image Manuel Harlan.
Copenhagen cast. Image Manuel Harlan.

“THE audience don’t have to be geniuses to follow the play but they will feel like geniuses when they come out,” declares Henry Goodman about Copenhagen.

Michael Frayn’s play, which opened at the Lyceum this week, is based around a meeting in 1941 between a Danish and German physicist and introduces quantum physics and the feasibility of building a nuclear bomb.

“It doesn’t mean you need to know about physics or the details of the Manhattan Project but hopefully you care about the people and you get sucked into the moral debate,” says Goodman who agrees that it could scarcely be a more different kind of show from when he was last in Sheffield in Fiddler on the Roof. “That was a big ensemble piece with a great star role whereas here there are three people on stage and the audience is asked to understand and be interested in all three of them.”

They are Niels Bohr, played by Goodman, his wife Margrethe (Barbara Flynn) and their visitor, Werner Heisenberg (Geoffrey Streatfeild), a former student now living in Nazi Germany.

“Niels Bohr was treated as an international hero in Denmark and a much honoured scientist in his homeland. There’s something humbling about playing someone who is that famous,” says Goodman.

“The play is about physics and morality but apart from that there’s the human need the characters have for each other,” he says in the sense that they shared an understanding of science at a level few others did but at the same time the younger man had made discoveries on his own away from his mentor.

Goodman admits he tried to read Stephen Hawking to get a handle on quantum physics but didn’t get very far. “I have been reading a lot, however, about Bohr and one of the great things about this day and age is all the things you can download on YouTube. There are many contradictory things but on the whole you get an overall picture why he was loved and had an institute named after him.

“Every actor wants to say there is something immediate in what they are performing. But with Iran’s nuclear programme in the news, we’re still discussing the advancement of atomic science and its impact on the world half a century on. Copenhagen is arguably rather timely.”

After Sheffield Henry Goodman will move on in 20th century history to play Henry Kissinger opposite Harry Shearer’s Richard M. Nixon in Nixon’s The One, a new comedy drama on Sky Arts. Co-written by Shearer of Spinal Tap and Simpsons fame with Stanley Kutler, the 30-minute pilot will be shown in the summer.

The show will be drawn from the hours of audio tapes secretly recorded by Nixon and made public since the eighties by the National Archives.

“They’ve built the Oval Office here in England. The idea is that it’s viewed through a secret camera,” explains Goodman who in the summer will play the title role in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at the Chichester Festival.

Copenhagen runs at the Lyceum until March 10.