Copenhagen

March 13th, 2010

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I have my friend Parki to thank for introducing me to the play Copenhagen by Michael Frayn.

I had not heard of it until January 2004 when Parki suggested that we go to see it at the Wintergarden in Toronto – and even offered me a free ticket. It was an offer I could not refuse!

From the outset, Frayn’s play struck me as belonging to a completely new seam of rich playwriting ore.  The idea of mining a play out of a short meeting between two atomic physicists from opposing sides in WWII was, to me, novel enough. It was also timely as I had not long before finished reading Richard Rhodes’ excellent book The Making of the Atomic Bomb and so the play combined, in the subject matter alone, several topics I enjoyed.

What I had not counted on, however, was the uniqueness of the structure of the play. The concept of the characters, long since dead, as ghosts in some timeless dimension reviewing and debating a pivotal moment in their past lives allowed Frayn to explore the meeting from unexpected directions as well as explore such koans as can you know a person’s true intentions without their actions revealing them. I really enjoyed the way Frayn employed devices such as repeating time loops and concurrent linkages between past and future events in the characters lives. The overall impression is of minds thinking, rather than events unfolding. With a small cast and a deep, potentially even turgid subject, the script could easy have become very tiring, but Frayn changes the pace of the dialogue using rapid fire round-robin dialogue to up the tempo as well as weaving in the uncertainty principle as a key element in the way thought is revealed. The play also drops the whole Aristolean play structure and has just two acts. The structure in my, admittedly limited, study of plays is rather unique.

It was, in its day, a very successful play. It won a number of awards, the 1998 Evening Standard Award for Best Play of the Year and the 2000 Tony Award for Best Play, as well as being made into a movie staring, no less than James Bond himself, Daniel Craig as Werner Heisenberg.

So, why blog this now, many years later?

Well, I promised myself as I was watching the play on that pleasant evening that in this playwriting technique there was something worth pursuing. It felt wrong that I could not think of another play or even another film that used this technique. A huge waste of a good idea. So I parked the structure at the back of my mind always on the look out for a suitable subject that could do it justice. A few months ago, I found just such a subject – not to be reveal here yet — and so I’ve embarked on a play.

At the risk of structural plagiarism, my play will borrow heavily from Frayn’s play. The topic is radically different, but it shares many features: it involves a real incident in history; there are two key protagonists in the event, but a third observer is so deeply entwined as to be a part of it; the incident occurs in a relatively short period of time; oh, and the protagonists are exceedingly famous within their milieu and the incident, in hindsight, is extremely pivotal and capable of interpretation in many ways and maybe … the truth is yet to be revealed.

So the play’s afoot. In my usual way with projects, it will probably be years in the making, but even so I have in recent months made good progress. I will report on some of that in future posts.

Thanks Parki.