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Review Round-up: How did critics react to Physicists?

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New artistic director Josie Rourke’s rare revival of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1961 play The Physicists opened at the Donmar Warehouse last night (7 June 2012, previews from 31 May).

Using Jack Thorne's new version of the text, the production features John Heffernan as brilliant scientist Johann Wilhelm Möbius. Afraid of the consequences of his scientific discoveries, Möbius has voluntarily incarcerated himself in a Swiss asylum.

He is joined by two fellow phycisists who think that they are Einstein (Paul Bhattacharjee) and Newton (Justin Salinger). As the inmates murder the nurses who care for them, questions are raised about the relationship between science and destruction.

Also starring Sophie Thompson, Miranda Raison and John Ramm, The Physicists continues at the Donmar until 21 July.

Michael Coveney

"Nothing but respect to Donmar supremo Josie Rourke for a meticulous and mostly riveting revival of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s weird but seriously dated comedy of madmen and weapons of mass destruction ... But it’s hard to get very agitated, as audiences must have been back in the early 1960s, about the incipient terrors of the Cold War crisis the play alludes to throughout, even though the arguments about 'responsible' research are always with us. The show – in a new 'version' by Jack Thorne, from a literal translation by Christine Madden – is best enjoyed now as a farcical teaser, with tricky jokes about concepts of madness and depression, and some wonderful acting, not least from John Heffernan as Möbius, one of just three internees in the luxury clinic ... Rourke’s beautifully weighted revival, designed by Robert Jones and lit by Hugh Vanstone, is driven less by urgent despair than a relish for Dürrenmatt’s undiminished theatrical flair."

Paul Taylor

"Using a wittily spry new version by Jack Thorne, the play is revived now with great aplomb by Josie Rourke in a production that brings home how the piece, a quintessential product of the Cold War, is like what you might get if you were to hand over the concerns of Dr Strangelove to a team comprised of Pirandello and Stoppard ... The play could seem a clever, and now rather dated series of conceits and plot-twists that lead to a stand-off that is a barmy parody of Cold War espionage and mutually assured destruction.  But Rourke's achievement is to warm the proceedings with Heffernan's brilliant performance and to ensure that the dotty drolleries retain their sharp political edge.  Recommended."

Patrick Marmion
Daily Mail

Josie Rourke’s new staging of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s 1962 play about scientists in a Swiss sanatorium is well acted - with a glorious turn from Sophie Thompson - but it never quite finds its satirical mark. It remains a twisted allegory of scientific responsibility, in which nuclear scientists strangle nurses in order to save the world from their discoveries. Rourke’s production, on designer Robert Jones’s surreal set (whitewashed doors bounded by a institutional green dado), is an uneasy mix of comedy and tragedy and suffers from a sense-of-humour failure in the second half ... But if there’s one outstanding performance, it’s from Thompson as the hunchbacked chief shrink. She looks like the love child of Shakespeare’s Richard III and Roald Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull in Matilda. It’s a terrific showing in a play that otherwise feels too much like hard work.”

Michael Billington

“The social responsibility of the scientist was a hot topic when the Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt wrote this play in 1961: this, after all, was a period when the prospect of nuclear annihilation seemed imminently real. But, while I'm delighted to see The Physicists revived, and find it salutary to be reminded of the big issue, there are times when the play seems to contain too much sugar and not enough pill ... Even if this sometimes seems a scientific play with very little science, it is directed with immense verve by Josie Rourke in a Robert Jones set that beautifully evokes the luxurious austerity of a Swiss clinic. The actors also achieve the right level of serious playfulness that I assume Dürrenmatt was after ... As a play, with all its well-carpentered skill, it gives you a thoroughly good time. Whether it leaves you debating scientific morality or our continuing dependence on the nuclear threat is something I doubt.”

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

“Josie Rourke's first season running the Donmar Warehouse has focused on war and its casualties. That interest lies at the heart of her measured production of Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s ingenious Sixties satire ... Physics threatens to unleash forces beyond nightmare. Dürrenmatt takes on scientific integrity, notions of duty, nihilism, the question of what people should do with their genius. The results are complex yet not consistently absorbing. Jack Thorne’s efficient new version of the text could be funnier and more felicitous, and the tragicomic power of Dürrenmatt doesn’t fully come across. The strength is Heffernan, a rising star.”

Simon Edge
Daily Express

“For the Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt, writing in 1961, the set-up was clearly a satirical Cold War metaphor for the evasion of moral responsibility by scientists who had brought the world to the brink of nuclear apocalypse. But nowadays, however ravishing Josie Rourke’s revival looks, the message seems dated and heavy-handed. On Robert Jones’s cool white set that owes more to Elle Decoration than One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, the cast turn in terrific performances ... But in an age where bankers are the global villains and scientists are if anything the ones who will save the world from man-made catastrophe, the satire seems way off-target. And while there are some enjoyable absurdities, such as an armed stand-off where “Einstein” and “Newton” reveal their true identities, the piece just isn’t funny enough to get by on madcappery alone.”

Stephanie Soh

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