No Frayn no gain without the physical behind the physics in Danish drama

Henry Goodman and Barbara Flynn as Margrethe in Copenhagen.
Henry Goodman and Barbara Flynn as Margrethe in Copenhagen.
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THEY say that behind every great man there is a strong woman.

Never perhaps was that belief truer than with eminent physicist Niels Bohr, the celebrated Danish scientist at the centre of Michael Frayn’s story of wartime suspicion, human brilliance and tested friendship.

It sees Barbara Flynn – Gertrude in the Crucible’s hit 2010 production of Hamlet – return as Bohr’s wife Margrethe in the production which opened last night and is running at The Lyceum until March 10.

“Everyone seems to think it’s only about physics and therefore inaccessible,” says Barbara, who stars alongside Henry Goodman as Niels and Spooks’ Geoffrey Streatfield as Werner Heisenberg, the young genius who returns to Bohr amid the race to create an atomic weapon following a spell in Nazi Germany.

“It’s about the uncertainty of the time the play is concerned with; why Heisenberg came back in the middle of the war at great risk to himself into a situation where they are under German occupation.

“It’s the uncertainty of his motives; what he was going to say. Everything is unclear, up for grabs. There’s the uncertainty of whether he was making a bomb for Hitler or not; the uncertainty whether anyone could actually make a bomb.”

Although phrases like quantum mechanics may have many scratching their heads, Frayn goes beyond to find the human factor in a real event that mattered to mankind.

“Bohr always appears to be the good man but he did have his flaws. There’s no question the marriage was very close. Margrethe was a brilliantly sociable person and, while not a physicist, bright enough to pull them back to earth. Also she’s the human touch here declaring ‘You did it for that reason’.”

Based on real-life events, Copenhagen explores the uncertainty of the past and the inevitability of the future via three people meeting for the final time in an era of heightened professional and personal tension.

So while popular belief may be that scientists are cold and pragmatic, Barbara denies David Grindley (Journey’s End) is directing a play about ‘robots’.

“I’m married to a scientist,” says the actress, producing copies of photos of Bohr and his wife looking like any other wife and husband.

“Margrethe was exceptionally giving and protective, watchful.

“Through all this uncertainty she watches and takes part and they include her because she is a wonderful sounding board.

“She is the connection – a bridge to the audience. She’s the one who clues the audience in and breaks down the physics when it becomes too intense in the play.

“And they were very comfortable with each other. Frayn gives her an edge that history tells us wasn’t apparent, but if Margrethe wasn’t in the play you wouldn’t have one because you can’t simply have two people.

“I’ve never seen her played as I see her because there is an edge and an intelligence. She’s not adjunct.”

First at the Crucible in 1975 in a Studio play called Sorry, Barbara remains in awe of John Simms’ Hamlet and is clearly pleased to be back bringing life to one of Frayn’s tougher, yet more surprising works.

“Frayn is writing about the person,” adds the actress who has starred in countless TV and stage shows. “But he also gets his own philosophy into the play brilliantly and it’s not beyond understanding.”