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The Physicists at the Donmar

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

My apologies this is one of those blog posts where I’ll do a bit of personal narrative before I get to the meat of the so called review which is in truth just my personal ramblings anyway.

Chance can be a funny thing… while I’d planned out my days on a short trip to London to take in as many exhibitions as I could I’d failed to plan for my nights.  So it was by chance that I found there was a seat at the Donmar to see The Physicists.  I honestly didn’t know a lot about the play.  I read a few reviews far enough to check it was something I’d find interesting but didn’t look at the cast or read up on the play.  Chance also that the announcement of a Higgs-like particle being discovered should break the day I go to see it.  To layer the coincidences on thicker – the news story keeping the Higgs-like particle off the top spot was Barclays who sponsor the Donmar.

On the flip side on my way to the theatre a number of events tried to conspire to stop me getting there.  First a black cab stopped suddenly to avoid going into a prison van that stopped without warning causing a cyclist who’d been going too fast to hit the traffic island I was standing on and almost bowl me like the middle stump taken out by a rather well bowled yorker.  Secondly I managed to get confused by the roads round Tottenham Court Tube station and walk all the way to Leicester Square before getting back on track.  Thankfully there was no thirdly.

All of this talk of coincidence might be the stuff of a Douglas Adamsish holistic detective but it’s not really the stuff of The Physicists. This is a play that lives in a pre chaos theory era where quantum theory, relativity and unified field theory reigned over the writer’s imagination. Where, as every review I’ve read helpfully reminds us, the threat of nuclear obliteration loomed large (sorry had to include a mention the threat imminent Nuclear Armageddon it appears to be in the small print of talking about the play).

Spoiler Warning - Post may contain spoilers

So what can I tell you about this production of Jack Thorne’s new version of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1961 play?  Well it starts out as a slightly unusual murder mystery in a sanatorium.  The patients are (or at least believe they are) Einstein, Newton and Möbius.  In tone it’s a comedy of sorts – the sort that includes murders, philosophy, psychiatric disorders and the threat of the destruction of the world – so a satire like Black Adder Goes Fourth but darker.  The plot is convoluted and defies genre, several times I found myself wondering if it could arrive at an ending.

The characters are to varying degree grotesques or in some way absurd.  One dresses as Newton another is a weightlifting female nurse while others include a hunchback, child escapees from an episode of Heidi, a stereotypical detective and a pair of imposing orderlies.  Several of the characters have multiple identities, not everyone is who they appear to be or who they say they are and several of the cast have multiple parts adding layers to the questions the story raises about identity. The absurdist nature of the characters allows some of them opportunity to reveal real humans peeking from behind the facades when they let their guard down.  I’m not going to pick out anyone from the cast – they were all excellent.

I really liked the Donmar its small enough to be intimate and with a thrust stage at floor level puts the performers right amongst the audience.  The backdrop of the set was a stark collection of doors painted white which must take some work to keep looking as good from performance to performance.  A grid of industrial light fittings hang above the stage.  The only large area of colour on the set a giant portrait to one side.  The lighting varied from the utilitarian illumination of the set to dramatic, highly theatrical lighting.  The sound design and music build an uneasy ambience before and during the play.  The costumes give the production the feel of an unspecified European country sometime after the war.  All of these elements add together to create an unsettling space for the story to unfold.

Reading proper reviews by proper critics it’s obvious that The Physicists isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  Personally I really enjoyed it so I’m glad chance conspired so I got tickets and didn’t get trapped in some sort of indeterminate quantum state.

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