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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE PHYSICISTS
at Donmar Warehouse

MAD SCIENTISTS
By CLAIRE ALLFREE

  Sophie Thompson and John Heffernan/ Ph: Johan Persson

Earlier this year, the Tricycle staged an intermittently fascinating cycle of plays exploring the history of the atom bomb. Now comes Josie Rourke’s typically ebullient revival of Friedrich Dürrenmatt's odd 1961 satire, written in the direct shadow of nuclear apocalypse.
 
Three physicists – one of whom thinks he is Newton, the second Einstein, while the third, Mobius, suffers regular visions of King Solomon – are holed up in a Swiss asylum under the beady eye of Sophie Thompson’s amphibian, megalomaniac hunchback psychiatrist, Dr von Zahnd. Each scientist is apparently beyond cure and thus, it follows, beyond the reach of the law, allowing each to merrily bump off their nurses with impunity, much to the frustration of John Ramm’s beautifully blustering Detective. For each nurse has cottoned onto the fact that their patient isn’t actually mad at all, and as their bodies pile up on the spanking-white asylum floor, their expedient demise at the hands of three morally unaccountable lunatics provides the allegorical framework for Dürrenmatt’s playful send-up of Cold War politics and the ethics of science.
 
Rourke’s production certainly looks good. Her whitewashed clinic boasts a back wall courtesy of designer Rob Jones,hung with closed white doors in a slick reference to the doors of knowledge, while rigorously disciplined performances from a first rate cast capture the play’s pristine, surreal microclimate.
 
At the centre is a stand out performance from John Heffernan as Mobius, the brilliant physicist who has unlocked the secret of atomic potential, and rather than share his knowledge with an unpredictable, precarious world, has instead locked himself away in an asylum at the cost of a life with his glamorous wife (an excellent Miranda Raison, who also cleverly doubles up as doomed Nurse Monika) and his two lederhosen-wearing sons. His is an existential tragedy of epic proportions; yet even Heffernan struggles to fully plumb the depths of his character’s moral and emotional agony in a play determined to keep the human element at arms-length.

It remains an awkward mix of Dr Strangelove-style farce, outdated German absurdism and a somewhat laboured comic mode that Rourke, a fine comic director, at times struggles to leaven. Paul Bhattacharjee and Justin Salinger fare well as Ernst and Herbert, respectively, scientists in the employ of different superpowers intent on teasing out Mobius’s secrets, but several jokes still fall ponderously flat. The play’s big, ethical questions feel tired, too, relics from a period when the possibilities of human knowledge felt newly explosive. And Jack Thorne’s nimble new adaptation may sizzle with brio, but it can’t do much about the fact that the play takes a very long time to get to the point. The coup de theatre finale, though, is wonderful – a reminder that our capacity for pushing back the frontiers of understanding can be awe-inspiring as well as terrifying.

 


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