AUTHOR and playwright Michael Frayn has never shied away from tackling major issues that affect at a personal and even mankind level.
And with a season comprising three of his most-awarded plays beginning next week, there are few bigger stories than that told by Copenhagen – based on the real events surrounding two leading scientists at the height of World War Two.
For veteran actor Henry Goodman the piece represents a challenge – as well as a welcome return to Sheffield following his previous Crucible triumph in Fiddler On The Roof.
“Fiddler was a remarkable experience,” he recalls, back in the venue. “Sitting in this bar after the show was one of the highlights of my life.
“The impact on people, emotionally – and musicals particularly can do that – was thrilling.
“I know there are thousands of people out there who thankfully enjoyed watching Fiddler and many hopefully will remember me.
“So I feel a great sense they will want to come with me on a journey into a play that is quite demanding.”
Copenhagen is set against the spectre of Nazi evil – in this case centred on Olivier Award winner Henry’s eminent Danish scientist Niels Bohr and his younger colleague Werner Heisenberg (played by Spooks star Geoffrey Streatfield), returned from Germany and now meeting amid an atmosphere of suspicion.
Completing the cast at the Lyceum is Niels’ wife Margrethe (Barbara Flynn) – and a discovery that could change the outcome of the war.
“This play takes place with these three people looking back over their lives. It may sound a bit forbidding because it’s about quantum physics and the bomb and stuff, but actually, if we get it right, you should care about all of them.”
Some say arts and science don’t mix, but in Copenhagen it should as the human factor rises in the face of potentially ruinous science.
“It’s been good, personally, to research and try to find out about Niels and Einstein and quantum mechanics – one of the hooks the plays rests on.
“Bohr is like a father to Heisenberg. Both were feisty geniuses so not easy to live with, not easy on each other, but they literally needed each other.
“How many people are you going to talk to if you are one of a few people in the world who understands something?
“So there’s that remarkable need of each other which has been, in a sense, traumatised by each of them making huge discoveries separate from each other and the older man loving but resenting that.
“It’s a play that weaves together the personal, the political and the scientific. That’s why it’s so rich.
“Because Michael Frayn is such a great thinker, his mind remarkable, he has done a detailed exploration of letters and thoughts, research of conversations from different points of view, so there’s a real ring of authenticity.
“Does it make a difference if you’re playing a real person?
“Yes it does.
“There’s so much information there – we as actors cull things to encourage us to make choices.
“So much is said, sometimes contradictory things, but on the whole you get an overall picture why Niels was loved and had an institute named after him.”
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.
“It’s not too big a statement to say it changed the world...what they were doing mattered.
“But there’s the moral issue of ‘Should you use your knowledge of how to make a nuclear bomb?’
“In the moment when these men had to make that decision they don’t have a bomb that’s gone off yet so they haven’t seen 20,000 bodies gone in 10 seconds.
“The play goes to before that happens and the build up to it and the moral decisions that enabled that to happen.”
Copenhagen runs at The Lyceum until March 10.
Henry Goodman relishing the prospect of re-acquainting himself with Sheffield
AN Olivier and Tony Award-winning playwright, Michael Frayn began his career as a satirist and columnist for the Guardian.
He is now regarded as one of our foremost writers, not least for his award-winning Spies, and his theatre work spans half a century and includes Noises Off.
The month-long season, which begins on Wednesday with Copenhagen in The Lyceum, includes Democracy and Benefactors, both also celebrated titles.
Henry Goodman, who recently played Sir Humphrey in a West End production of Yes, Prime Minister, has previously toured through Sheffield with Broken Glass and Hysteria, about Freud, in the Lyceum.
His film roles include Notting Hill and The Damned United while Foyle’s War and The Turing Project figure in his TV credits.
He is clearly in awe of Frayn when we speak, and is relishing the prospect of winning over another Sheffield audience, albeit with a tougher play.
“It’s really important that it treats the audience as intelligent,” he says of Copenhagen. “It doesn’t mean they have to know about physics or the details of the Manhattan Project, but they’re sucked into a moral debate hopefully through people they care about who need and love each other, but like a lot of family relationships – and it is a sort of family – they hurt each other.
“There are betrayals and yearnings. It’s the human thing in the context of brilliant geniuses, that combination. It’s important the personal is in there against the political.”
It is also clear Henry is happy to be working at a revitalised Sheffield Theatres again.
“Actors have developed a great affection for this place, like Stratford, because we come away from London and have to connect with each other in a different way.
“It’s a bit like what goes on in this play; there is in a sense a new set of horses pulling the carriage – and the carriage has not just been redecorated it’s got new springs.
“Daniel Evans and his team seem to have created a new sense of opportunity and excitement. Some people will like one show more than another but the overall thrust is the audience.
“Coming back with the right play – even though it’s a lot of pressure to get it together for a limited run – as part of a season was too good an opportunity to miss.
“There are not many authors in this world who write books about philosophy, write plays like Noises Off, a whole range of comedies and the scientific.”