Archives for January 2013

Copenhagen - The director's blog

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Graeme Kay Graeme Kay | 13:19 UK time, Thursday, 10 January 2013

Photo of Simon Russell Beale, Greta Scacchi and Benedict Cumberbatch in studio

Simon Russell Beale, Greta Scacchi and Benedict Cumberbatch in studio

Emma Harding has produced and directed Michael Frayn's play about the controversial meeting in 1941 between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, friends who now found themselves on opposing sides in Hitler's war. Here, Emma describes the concept and the casting ... 


I set out to direct Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen for radio with great joy – I’d hugely admired Michael Blakemore’s original 1998 stage production and Howard Davies’ inventive 2002 BBC film version – but also with a great sense of trepidation.  How would we turn a brilliant stage play into something that worked as a radio drama?  How would I help the actors – and the listeners – navigate some very complex scientific and moral ideas? 

But as I read and re-read the play, I began to feel that one of the keys to the piece was Frayn’s playful and metaphorical use of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The notion of uncertainty runs through the whole drama – the uncertainty and the unsaid within human relationships, the uncertainty and the contradiction of human memory, and the uncertainty – the unknowability - of human motivation.  And, in the foreground, is the still unresolved mystery of why Heisenberg went to see Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941. 

But a drama about the uncertainty of a character’s motivation presents an interesting dilemma to actors and director, who are more used to asking ‘why am I doing what I’m doing?’ and making a decision one way or another. Fortunately, I had a terrifically bright and engaged cast – Simon Russell Beale, Benedict Cumberbatch and Greta Scacchi – who were more than capable of taking on these mind games. 

It’s also critical that the actors are confident with the complex scientific ideas that their characters are throwing around the dinner table. I invited the physicist and broadcaster Jim Al-Khalili along to our read-through, so that the cast could ask him detailed questions about Bohr and Heisenberg’s work.  As anyone who’s listened to Radio 4’s The Life Scientific 

will know, Jim’s a brilliant expositor of mind-bending ideas, so by the end of the session, we all felt we had some sort of grip on the science that informs the drama.

But the play itself isn’t about science.  Or rather, it is about science, but it’s about science in the context of morality, politics and history. These two physicists are working on opposing sides in a global war and they are both very aware of the potential chain reaction – that their work on the atom could inevitably contribute to the deaths of millions of people. 

These are big ideas. But Copenhagen is also an intimate, domestic drama about a friendship between two men and a perceived betrayal. 

In Simon and Benedict’s portrayals of Bohr and Heisenberg, we worked on creating a real sense of a friendship that has become strained, but that was once incredibly close – the friendship between an eminent physicist and his mercury-witted protégé, or between a father-figure and his adopted son. And Greta, as Margrethe Bohr, presents a fiercely intelligent woman, torn between her inherent instinct towards graciousness and hospitality, and her irritation with Heisenberg. 

Meeting John Paul Jones

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Fiona Talkington Fiona Talkington | 03:29 UK time, Tuesday, 1 January 2013


Fiona Talkington and John Paul Jones

Fiona Talkington and John Paul Jones at Maida Vale

Late Junction presenter Fiona Talkington introduces the star of the show's New Year's Day special 

When John Paul Jones was a teenager he asked his father for a loan so that he could buy an electric bass. His father laughed and told him he wouldn’t get any work playing bass and he’d be better off getting a sax. Fortunately for the world of rock music the bass won and John  went on to play in one of the most successful bands the world has known, Led Zeppelin.

John’s father was stiff competition for the young musician in his early years: 'I couldn’t rival him as a pianist, so I went and learned the church organ', he told me while unpacking instruments in the BBC’s Maida Vale studios just before Christmas. There’s some electronics wizardry he’s putting together plus  a mandolin (which he always travels with), a ukulele and an instrument I immediately covet, a 'collapse-steel' - a lap steel which folds in two and pops into a handy travel-sized bag. This is part of John’s collection of 'small' instruments and he’s going to play them and the studio’s Steinway, as well as choose some discs for Late Junction’s New Year show.

I first met John Paul Jones in 2008 when he came backstage at a Norwegian festival I was curating at Kings Place in London. We persuaded him (quite easily) that he should come to the Punkt Festival in Kristiansand and that was where he had a memorable meeting with the mighty Supersilent (Arve Henriksen, Helge Sten and Ståle Storløkken).  I’d introduced John on to the stage where he played a short extract from music he’d written for choreographer Merce Cunningham. When Supersilent came on next he stayed and played with them. Standing side of stage I witnessed four musicians who have such passion for what they do and who were totally enthralled by playing together. The relationship has lasted and Supersilent and John Paul Jones have just finished their first UK tour.

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