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A Questors Production: The Physicists – Friedrich Dürrenmatt

Originally written in 1961, The Physicists resonates in 2024 in ways its playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1921-1990) could not reasonably be expected to have foreseen. There’s a lot going on in a psychiatric ward, with the storyline largely focusing on three patients, who spend most of their time in their separate rooms. Except watching people who belong in a psychiatric ward in their own rooms isn’t exactly gripping theatre, as well as being potentially morally dubious, so all of the action of the play takes place in a common room instead.

The PhysicistsThe play is set in the Cold War era (okay, so there’s a bit of theatrical licence going on with a large flatscreen in the room), with Herbert Georg Beutler (Craig Nightingale), who believes himself to be Sir Isaac Newton, and Ernst Heinrich Ernesti (Dumitru Stratulat), who believes himself to be Albert Einstein, apparently spies for opposing sides. I say ‘apparently’ as it is never, perhaps deliberately, entirely clear what is true and what isn’t, particularly when there is talk of King Solomon (yes, the ruler of ancient Israel) making regular visits to Johann Wilhelm Möbius (Jerome Kennedy).

There aren’t as many angry, manic outbursts as one might imagine in a psychiatric ward – just enough to remind the audience that these are people who have been deemed to be mentally ill: from a dramatic standpoint, this is a wise move. Too much ranting would be too repetitive, with later shoutathons involving a large amount of actors’ energy being expended with diminishing returns.

The main characters have all murdered someone, separately, and while Detective Inspector Richard Voss (David Hovatter) carries out his investigations, there’s an assuredness about him that only later becomes clear. There aren’t going to be any prosecutions regardless because the people who committed them are, to put it bluntly, already committed, as it were. What I found extraordinary was that, once a long discussion between the ‘physicists’ finally takes place, there was relatively little in the way of scientific jargon. Not that there wasn’t plenty to think about, because for all the murders, there were wider implications of the characters’ actions.

The production proceeded at a moderate pace, with the common room being rather more austere than the amounts allegedly charged by this private clinic would suggest: Mrs Lina Rose (Kate Kasampali), Möbius’ ex-wife, comes to the clinical director, Fräulein Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd (Sunita Dugal), with a host of concerns, one of which is the cost of Möbius’ medical bills. Elsewhere, there are some thoughtful observations on what might be considered actions for the greater good, especially if individual sacrifice is involved. I doubt such a play would have been written these days – the world is far more individualistic than it was.

That said, I started by saying the play resonates with the world as it is today. Möbius is concerned, with some justification, that his scientific research could well be used for destructive reasons. In the real world, so to speak, last year, Geoffrey Hinton, a computer scientist and cognitive psychologist, resigned from Google because of his concerns about the risks of artificial intelligence, which he helped develop. As far as this play goes, the power goes to the doctor’s head, leading to a rather bizarre conclusion. Still, with fears about nuclear weapons continuing to loom large now as it did in the Sixties, it’s quite an indictment that the world hasn’t, in some respects, improved very much, if at all, in the intervening decades. A whimsical yet insightful production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Three famed physicists, two brutal crimes, one mental hospital. Enter a world of deception, intrigue and espionage in this dark comedy packed with thrilling twists from start to finish.

Join us for a Cold-War era classic from the Swiss Master of the avant-garde. A world premiere of the new translation by our very own, Russell Fleet!

A Questors Production
The Physicists
19 Jan – 27 Jan 24 | The Studio

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