Reviewed by James Karas
Friedrich Durrenmatt’s The Physicists is a brilliant play that turns the world upside down with intelligence and humour. The Stratford Festival has given it a superb production directed by Miles Potter.
Three physicists are in a lunatic asylum. Herbert Georg Beutler (Graham Abbey) thinks he is Newton. He wears a wig and 17th century clothes. Ernst Heinrich, Ernesti (Mike Nadajewski) thinks he is Einstein. Johann Mobius (Geraint Wyn Davies) talks with King Solomon. They are nuts.
The staff of the asylum is just as looney. Head Nurse Marta (Karen Robinson) and psychiatrist von Zahnd (Seana McKenna) are fit to be tied.
Members of the company in The Physicists. Photography by David Hou
Einstein has strangled a nurse and Inspector Voss (Randy Hughson) has come to investigate the “incident.” The perpetrator is insane and there can be no murder or murderer.
The plot gets complicated but in the meantime we are treated to some fine acting, plenty of laughter and sheer fascination created by Durrenmatt’s world view. Randy Hughson is hilarious as the inspector. He is a world-weary cop who wants to smoke, have a drink and go through the motions of investigating something that he knows he cannot investigate.
Abbey as Newton has adopted the refined manners and gestures of a seventeenth century gentleman but he confides in us that he knows he is not Newton. In fact he is Einstein but pretends to be Newton in order not to hurt Ernesti’s feelings.
Nadajewski with his messy hair standing and a violin in his hand is a looney-looking Einstein.
Mobius his hair mussed up and claiming direct contact with King Solomon looks crazier than the rest and eventually we do find out the reason.
McKenna in a white hospital gown, a white wig and a hunched back is at her usual best as the psychiatrist who needs a psychiatrist.
Durrenmatt takes on the serious subject of the responsibility of scientists at a time (1962) when the devastation caused by the atomic bomb was a recent memory and the development of nuclear weapons during the cold war presented a clear and present danger.
Seana McKenna as Fräulein Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd and Mike Nadajewski as Ernst Heinrich Ernesti (alias Einstein) in The Physicists. Photography by David Hou.
As it turns out the physicists are not lunatics at all. Einstein and Newton are spies for great powers and pretending to be insane in order to get the manuscripts of the genius Mobius. All three have murdered nurses because the victims were getting close to discovering the truth about the mental state and the intentions of the scientists.
Durrenmatt calls for a posh lunatic asylum but that type of set is impossible in the Tom Patterson Theatre. Set Designer Peter Hartwell has the stage strewn with furniture after the murders and has a well laid out table for dinner to indicate a different class nuthouse.
The production is an adaptation by Michael Healy using colloquial language and it works quite well.
Director Miles Potter has put together a fine production of a humorous, intelligent and thought-provoking work by an author who is not produced very frequently at all.