WhatsOnStage Logo

The Physicists

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
WhatsOnStage logo
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 in the pristine white setting of a Swiss lunatic asylum run by a hunchbacked female psychiatrist.

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.

Möbius is afflicted with visions of King Solomon: he’s the wise one, with curiously odd behaviour emanating from lugubrious Paul Bhattacharjee as a violin-playing, straggle-haired 'Einstein' and snappy Justin Salinger as a curly-wigged (with apple attached) 'Isaac Newton'.

At the start, a nurse’s corpse lays stretched out on the floor. John Ramm as the Ortonesque detective inspector, face fixed like a dried prune, turns up to investigate. He runs into the obstructive wall of Sophie Thompson’s hilarious, hunchbacked doctor who slithers round the stage in a semi-recumbent posture, biting off her lines like a greedy anaconda.

Einstein and Newton, each in the pay of a super power, are feigning madness in order to stalk Möbius, who has chosen to immure himself in the asylum rather than expose humanity to his terrifying discoveries. His first wife (Miranda Raison, slyly doubling as his pneumatic nurse and devoted champion) visits with their two boys in lederhosen who serenade him with a bit of Buxtehude on the recorder.

Heffernan charts Möbius’ ascent to true madness with unflinching skill and untrammelled passion. It’s a steely, disciplined performance for so instinctively demonstrative an actor, but he knuckles down, along with the rest of the cast, to convey the strange, airless atmosphere of an experiment carried out in laboratory conditions.

It’s worth recalling that, in 1963, Peter Brook directed the play for the RSC at the Aldwych in between his landmark King Lear and The Marat/Sade: an apocalyptic trilogy of madness and destruction. 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.


Tagged in this Story