Swiss epic theatre writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt's intriguing 1962 play, 'The Physicists', is both an impassioned argument against nuclear war and an absurd comedy involving the farcical murders of three female nurses. The result is like the awkward lovechild of Joe Orton's 'What the Butler Saw' and Robert Wilson's 'Einstein on the Beach'. But, in Jack Thorne's sharp and sophisticated new version, this strange Cold War tragi-comedy emerges as a moving argument for humanism over unethical progress.
Three physicists, Herbert Georg Beutler, Ernst Heinrich Ernesti and Johann Wilhelm Möbius, are in a mental asylum. Beulter and Ernesti appear to believe they are, respectively, Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, while Möbius is regularly visited by King Solomon. But as conditions in the asylum worsen and Möbius, like his fellow inmates before him, is moved to murder his nurse, all three men are forced to reveal their sanity.
Thorne's funny but earnest script gives coherence to Dürrenmatt's difficult balance of mad humour in the first act and catharsis in the second. Robert Jones's mischievous set, where light bulbs become brandy glasses, also cleverly marries lunacy and lucidity. Although she never falls off, director Josie Rourke does not always seem comfortable on this tightrope.
Of her cast, grotesquely skilful actress Sophie Thompson succeeds in making hunchbacked sanatorium head Dr Mathilde von Zahnd both character and caricature. But Justin Salinger (Beulter) and Paul Bhattacharjee (Ernesti) initially appear unable to humanise their mad personas. But as Dürrenmatt's dialectic settles into a straightforward argument, Rourke and co produce an emotionally compelling second act.
Once something is learned it cannot be unlearned, we are forcefully told. It's a potent lesson, even for a modern audience less in the shadow of the mushroom cloud.
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