A topical play is a funny thing. Mount it at just the right time in history, and you’ve got a piece that’s a strong and relevant commentary on society’s most pressing issues. Resurrect it half a century later when the climate is impossible to duplicate in its entirety, and there’s a risk its potency will be greatly diluted. So when the Stratford Festival decided to produce “The Physicists”, which opened on May 27, the science-themed play is an interesting proposition when watching the still-evolving relationship between world superpowers, with the new war taking shape in the call to arms over knowledge acquisition.
Written by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, adapted by Michael Healey and directed by Miles Potter, “The Physicists” takes place in an insane asylum, although the head psychiatrist, the highly esteemed Fraülein Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd (Seanna McKenna, in a surprisingly well-fitting role), prefers to use the more respectable-sounding term of sanatorium. Indeed, the Villa wing of the Les Cerisiers Institution (“the cherry trees”) earns the nicer word by being finely decorated, with Turkish rugs, chaise lounges and leather ottomans adorning the drawing room (set design by Peter Hartwell). It’s where the physicists in the play, Herbert Georg Beutler, aka Sir Isaac Newton (Graham Abbey), Ernst Heinrich Ernesti, aka Albert Einstein (Mike Nadajewski) and Johann Wilhelm Möbius (Geraint Wyn Davies) come together in their respective crazinesses and shared background in physics.
But none of the men are who they say they are, who they think they are, and who they think the others are. Newton insists he’s actually Einstein and only pretends to be Newton to pacify Einstein, who, in turn, admits to hating to play the violin (“Let me get my fucking fiddle,” he sighs at the end of the play) and simply does so to keep up appearances. Möbius, a seemingly meek, Roy Cropper-type, insists he’s the right hand man of King Solomon but later tells Nurse Monika Stettler (Claire Lautier) he only made that up to humanely spare his family (ex-wife Lina, played by Jane Spidell, and their three children, played by Felix Kropf-Untucht, Cailyn Mann and Parker Merlihan) the pain of visiting him — and recants again when she professes her burning desire to run off to the countryside with him. Oh, and each of the physicists has committed a murder, strangling a nurse to death.
If it all sounds a little confusing, it’s not in actuality. Director Miles Potter does a fantastic job of keeping the separate narratives clean enough that they can form distinguishing threads in the finale’s braid, aided by the performances of his actors. Wyn Davies is a tour de force in the play, using a soft-spoken manner to land the biggest punches, which make his outbursts all the more startling. Nadajewski is delightful to watch as Einstein and his other identities, especially when he first parades out in the beginning with his violin held wearily in the air. Of the three, Abbey’s performance doesn’t quite rise to the same level; there isn’t quite enough depth to match the others, although he’s still entertaining with his curtsies and Cheshire cat smiles.
In what seems almost like a role tailor made for her, McKenna slides into her character with such ease, it’s almost as natural a fit as Will Ferrell in “Elf”. Her Fraülein Doktor needs equal parts zaniness, complicity, intelligence and a well-groomed lineage (she is “the omega and the alpha” in a long line of insane ancestors and their progenitors), and McKenna foists herself on it with gusto. She’s also given some of the best dialogue in the play, with lines like “God knows what kind of nervous homunculi I’d squeeze out”, and “History will be presided over by a hunchbacked SEE-EE-OH!“. And when she delivers each bon mot with just a hint of a smirk on her face, waiting just the right number of beats for the audience to enjoy the humour, it’s McKenna at her best.
At the heart of “The Physicists” is the moral dilemma of what to do with powerful, world-changing knowledge, the likes of which is enough to make even the most levelheaded person insane. Is it Möbius, the physicist whose namesake’s discovery reflects his illusory and dually-intertwined nature? Or is it one of the two others, whose cavalier attitudes towards the murder each committed is surely the realm of madmen? Perhaps there’s a touch of it in Inspektor Richard Voss (Randy Hughson), the police officer sent to solve the murders at Les Cervisiers, who has to compartmentalize his psyche in order to deal with all the murders he encounters.
“The Physicists” is a play that dances around plot twists as easily as the oft-heard Kreutzer Sonata by Beethoven shimmies passages from Einstein’s room into the Villa, with a surface lightness that belies its inner angst. This Stratford production deftly handles the original work, which tries to answer the question of what constitutes prison and freedom and what leads to inhabitation in each. When it first ran in 1962, science, ethics and war were intersecting at an alarming rate with potentially catastrophic consequences for the future; 53 years later, we’re not so far from when we first started only now, atomic bombs and missile crises have now taken the shapes of governmental spy agencies, whistleblowers and separating knowledge into public and private domains.
There are a couple of moments when the play slips in its attempt to stay relevant in a new era, but it’s more like skating over a rut in the ice than getting your blade caught in it. It’s also got charm and laughter to spare, with this Stratford production making an early case for itself as one of the top ones this season.