scene: three physicists are confined to a mental asylum. One of
them thinks he is Isaac Newton, the other Albert Einstein. The third
physicist, Johann Wilhelm Möbius, claims to see visions of
King Solomon. One by one, all three become murderers. As the play
develops, it becomes clear only that nothing is clear and nothing
is what it seems.
absurdist comedy from Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt
paints itself as blacker-than-black. Unfortunately, it is actually,
well, sort of beige, that's all.
Physicists was written in 1961, when the threat of nuclear extermination
loomed heavily on the political horizon, and it is this that informs
its distinct ethical bent: its moral questioning of science and
of the power of governments to abuse it.
these questions are the stuff of sci-fi cliché. The play
suffers from the curse of being old enough to seem dated, but not
yet old enough to be a period piece. The twists in the plot are
almost predictable, and the dialogue sometimes comes across as clunky,
didactic and overly direct, though possibly this is down to the
translation from the original German.
the small cast, directed by Sophie Buchan and Sara Carroll, manage
to wrestle with this rather turgid script and come out on top -
just. Their version of The Physicists is an enjoyable production
that adds its own little absurdities - the portrait of composer
Gustav Mahler that hangs on the back wall throughout under the guise
of being one of Doktor von Zahnd's illustrious ancestors is a nicely
comic lines there are, are timed well. While the acting is generally
competent, rather than outstanding, Ed Chappel is good as the bumbling,
pipe-smoking 'Einstein' and Lucy Underwood is truly in Nurse Ratched
territory as the magnificently disturbed Doktor von Zahnd.
still, I ask you: "Who is mad? What is madness and what is
sanity? What if the inmates ended up running the asylum?" I
could go on, but I won't test your patience. Such questions are
hackneyed, and when combined with tedious faux-profundities and
comic-strip ethics they really start to grate. Despite the best
efforts of the cast and crew, it was difficult for them to salvage
a play that, for a so-called comedy, takes them - and itself - far,
far too seriously.