Posted on behalf of Elizabeth Gibney
Like Copenhagen, Michael Frayn’s 1990s blockbuster, Heisenberg: the Uncertainty Principle is a play that takes as its muse a notion at the heart of quantum physics: that it is impossible to know both the exact position and momentum of a particle at once. Where Frayn imagined physicists’ rarefied debates, playwright Simon Stephens uses the idea to probe the messy world of relationships.
The one-act work revolves around 42-year-old Georgie (Anne-Marie Duff), a fabulist, and Alex (Kenneth Cranham), a 75-year-old butcher, who meet in a station. The pair forges an unlikely affair that sees them baring their souls over a period of six weeks.
Stephens exploits the uncertainty principle to explore what he sees as a quirk of human interaction. To predict someone’s movements is to not pay attention to them properly, and knowing someone really well makes it more likely that they will surprise you, he said in interviews ahead of the opening. When Stephens learned of the principle though his son’s love of science, it struck him, he says, “that all life is contained within it”.
Georgie name checks Werner Heisenberg as she lays out the principle to Alex to help explain why she is estranged from her son (the only time the theory, or indeed science, is actually mentioned). The urge to find him drives the story forward. There are further parallels: one interpretation of the principle, for example, is that uncertainty in a particle’s momentum comes from the physical process of measuring its position. Similarly, only by learning about each other do Georgie and Alex change the course of their lives. What in other hands could be somewhat contrived is made enjoyable by stellar performances, thoughtful direction by Marianne Elliot and clever staging and music.
Both characters prove surprising in different ways. Georgie is blunt and quixotic. Duff plays the effervescent role masterfully. Alex’s change of tack is much more subtle. He is at first a grumpy man of a certain age – inured to life and happy to be alone. Cranham movingly shows how breaking through the façade can reveal a complex and raw person, with an boyish zest for life.
Though the script is witty and at times insightful, it doesn’t always ring true. For me, the age gap was perpetually jarring. But it’s almost as if the combination is not supposed to be real. Indeed the play has the feel of a textbook problem: a stripped-back model that asks the audience to imagine an unlikely paring of two people, like particles in a box. The feeling is enhanced by the stark set. Designer Bunny Christie has events take place in a minimalist white space that morphs before our eyes as scenes change.
The uncertainty principle is one of only a few ideas in quantum mechanics that is both intuitive and easy to describe, and the play’s reference to it is thankfully not overcooked. The analogies Stephens draws between life and physics aren’t perfect, but as device for exploring interaction – and a way to remind theatre-goers that science can resonate with human experience and creativity – it works.
Elizabeth Gibney is a senior reporter for Nature based in London. She tweets at @lizziegibney.
Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle is on at the Wyndham’s Theatre, London, until 6 January 2018.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.