In the same week that famed mathematician John Nash and his wife died tragically and reports that the uneasy “alliance” between industry and science continues to put “pure” research in jeopardy (are findings really valid if they are funded by interested parties?), along comes Michael Healey’s new adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists.
Variously described as a “grotesque comedy or tragicomedy,” “satirical drama” or “darkly comic satire,” the early ‘60s work that has a lot to say about how knowing too much science could put the planet at risk, may soon become a staple rather than a rarity as Cold War II appears to be taking ugly shape.
Purposely ignorant before the curtain went up (every once in a while—much more frequently in my new music reviews—I come to a performance “cold” in order to get a sense of how the première might have felt), I was mightily tempted to vanish at intermission.
For me, there was too much of a Keystone Cops (led by Randy Hughson as the libation-craving Inspector Voss) tone during the investigation of the brutal murders of two nurses—apparently committed by the “residents” of Les Cerisiers Institution (this “Cherry Orchard” being a three-patient insane asylum, populated by a trio of physicists). Call me old-fashioned, but violent death never tickles my funny bone.
The three men of science seem to have a somewhat loose grasp of reality: Herbert Georg Butler’s alter ego is Isaac Newton (Graham Abbey in fine form as the wigged genius); Ernst Heinrich Ernesti is, in fancy, Albert Einstein, replete with violin and numerous references to the “Kreutzer” Sonata (although in many ways that link is closer to Janáček and Tolstoy than Beethoven); Mike Nadajewski plays the role with curly wit and excellent timing. Rounding out the covey of lunatics is Johann Wilhelm Möbius who is a frequent confidante of and conversationalist with King Solomon. Geraint Wyn Davies brings this character to complex life with consummate skill.
Riding herd over the wackos is Fräulein Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd. Seana McKenna (aided and abetted by the wonderfully bossy Karen Robinson as Marta Boll) is resplendent in black and white (both wardrobe and characterization) as she tries to maintain control over the sanatorium even as the body count rises.
Initially tiresome and a poor Inspector Clouseau imitation, Hughson’s Voss—through no fault of his own: it’s the writing—eventually hits its stride (and the brandy bottle) after the third body drops. The poorly paid gumshoe has some savvy insights as to why certain people (or in this case their personas…) are bound to get away with murder.
Thankfully, the French farce takes a wholly different turn after the break (curiosity driving me back to my seat) when it’s revealed that the threesome of murderous inmates are more or less sane (only forced to dispose of their loving caregivers when their deceits might unravel!).
From there, the actual drama kicks in: What price would governments be prepared to pay to gain access to world-changing breakthroughs in physics?
Director Miles Potter has made the most of this, at times, uneasy (literally, figuratively) work, yet not a few in the audience—witness many laughs in the wrong place—seemed uncertain as to whether or not this was an entertainment or cautionary tale. No worries. Let’s ask Kim Jong-il, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, Vladimir Putin, leaders of ISIL… JWR