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January 2004
Review: The Physicists
The Burton Taylor
The Burton Taylor


The Physicists

By Friedrich Dürrenmatt, translated by James Kirkup

Burton Taylor Theatre

27-31, January 2004

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By Miriam Quick

The 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.

This absurdist comedy from Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt paints itself as blacker-than-black. Unfortunately, it is actually, well, sort of beige, that's all.

The 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.

Today, 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.

Nonetheless, 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 random touch.

What 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.

But, 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.

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