Don’t be misled by this play’s title; it deals with much more than physics or physicists. The show was performed in its original German (a delight as a mother-tongue German speaker) with English subtitles. Dürrenmatt’s dark absurdist comedy tackles the ethics and structures of science, madness and power. In the Director’s Note, the directors acknowledge the challenge in staging this “fiercely moral yet absurdist piece” and bringing it into the 21st century, a challenge they wonderfully mastered.
I only vaguely remembered this play from high school, so I looked up the plot beforehand. The great physicist Möbius attempts to hide his scientific discovery, the knowledge of which would devastate humanity, by disguising himself as insane. As his secret slowly comes out of the woodwork, it transpires that none of the inmates or staff at the clinic are what they seem. While a knowledge of the play comes in handy when the identities begin maniacally switching, the cast certainly played out the mayhem of it well.
Even without any understanding of German, the cast’s comedic timing and nuanced tone gave the show universal appeal. The Barron theatre’s black box set up effectively directed our focus towards the staging. The set was cleverly thought out, relying on a table tennis theme for props and staging (the actors alternately used table tennis rackets as guns, food and a violin).
The climax was saved for the end. Fräulein Doktor von Zahnd’s monologue was practically shouted, amplified by the small theatre space. It powerfully drove the message home: ‘we are all mad here.’ The main physicist Möbius (Laura Vennes) and his two counterparts Newton (Tom Josten) and Einstein (Tobias Heinrichs) deserve particular praise; their interactions were tense, funny and delivered the most poignant messages of the show. Vennes convincingly portrayed a scientist intent on protecting his secret, portraying guilt, rage, doubt and despair, impressing me with her emotional range. While it was clear that German was not everyone’s native language, every cast member was completely committed to their characters. Elisha Herring’s accent and delivery were particular moving considering she was one of the non-native German speakers among the cast.
Besides a few technical hiccups (the subtitles were sometimes out of time with the actors) and missed timings, the show was a wonderful departure, both from the language I hear every day and my essay deadlines (*cry*).
I’ll leave you with Dürrenmatt’s own words echoing, in much the same way they continued to echo for me, even after I left the Barron.
“Entweder bleiben wir im Irrenhaus, oder die Welt wird eines.”
“Either we stay in this madhouse or the world becomes one.”