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Theatre: Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle and The Lady from the Sea

Arts | By Paul Bailey | December 2017

Reviewed by Paul Bailey

The title of Simon Stephens’s new play promises something it doesn’t even begin to deliver.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle, at Wyndham’s Theatre, is not – as one might reasonably suppose – a dramatic portrait of the German physicist Werner Heisenberg and the discovery that earned him a Nobel Prize in 1932, but rather a love story of a peculiarly romantic kind.

It begins at St Pancras Station, where Alex Priest, a 75-year-old butcher, is sitting alone on a bench. He is surprised by a woman, who kisses him on the back of the neck. A conversation, halting at first, ensues. 

She is an American, Georgie Burns, she informs him with certainty, and she has a son in his twenties who is missing. He listens to her, occasionally interrupting to clarify what she is saying, and then they part, for the time being.

They meet again, after she has tracked down his shop on the internet. He stands behind the counter and listens once more to her unstoppable monologue. He invites her to dinner, which gives him the opportunity to talk more freely about himself. He reveals he has been in love for fifty years with a girl who spurned him and went off with someone else.

He lets Georgie know that he finds her attractive. When he tells her his age, she bursts into manic laughter. Even so, it’s not long before the action shifts to Alex’s bedroom. They undress decorously and make love beneath an all-encompassing white sheet. It’s then that Georgie asks the big, post-coital question. She needs £15,000 desperately. Would Alex give her the money?

He is too startled to answer either yes or no. He accuses her of setting him up, of stalking him. Is the multi-faceted Georgie a high-class tart as well? She’s a well-preserved 42, and is still desirable.

Where does Heisenberg fit into all this? Awkwardly, at best. The point Stephens seems to be labouring is that the ‘uncertainty principle’ applies to human behaviour.

It needs no ghost from the grave to tell us that. We are taught as children that appearances are deceptive. Heisenberg is composed of very short scenes which test the talents of Kenneth Cranham and Anne-Marie Duff to the utmost.

Duff’s character is especially irritating: Georgie would be just about bearable in a novel, where the reader has leisure to examine her many contradictions, but on stage she is a grating presence. Cranham almost makes one believe that Alex would sell his business and accompany Georgie to New Jersey to find her non-existent son. He is a wondrously gifted actor.

The production is a stylistic triumph. The only prop is a half-eaten bar of chocolate. Chairs, tables, benches, counters and the bed all rise up from the floor in Bunny Christie’s ingenious set. Screens move stealthily across the stage, opening up vistas and then closing in on them. Alex and Georgie appear to eat in front of a Rothko painting, lit by the incomparable Paule Constable. Marianne Elliott, whose first venture into management, along with Neil Harper, this is, directs with her customary visual flair. But the play is a slight affair.

The latest production of Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea, at the Donmar Warehouse, comes in a very free adaptation by Elinor Cook, who gives it a Caribbean setting in the 1950s, when many West Indians left the islands to start a new life in Britain. The characters retain their Norwegian names, but they are undeniably British in their speech and their attitudes.

It makes sense that the haunted Ellida, Dr Wangel’s second wife, should be black. Nikki Amuka-Bird plays her with total conviction. For once, she doesn’t seem like a leading actress in search of a symbol, because Elinor Cook has turned the mysterious seaman who broke her heart 20 years earlier into a recognisable rogue of sorts.

Kwame Kwei-Armah has encouraged his actors to underplay big moments in the interests of naturalism. There are no lengthy, meaningful pauses, for example. Tom McKay as Arnholm and Helena Wilson as Bolette are especially fine.

Both Heisenberg and The Lady from the Sea are played without an interval. Long may this civilised practice continue. 

This story was from December 2017 issue. Subscribe Now