By Simon Fearn
For everyone involved, the Freshers’ Play must be terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. The idea is to put on a production staged entirely by freshers; as introductions to the Durham theatre scene go, it’s definitely sink or swim. This year’s freshers were tasked with a production of little-known play The Physicists by German playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt. The result? Unfortunately: middling.
The choice of play was unusual; it was refreshing to see something different from the traditional Big Names, but it was also a difficult play to do well. The premise is that three atomic physicists (two of which think they’re Newton and Einstein) are tied up in the murders of nurses at a sanatorium in 1960s Cold War Germany. Mild humour dominates over sharp gags — the only real laugh from the audience came from a joke about one of the actors being ginger. The play reaches an emotional climax, and the last few minutes of this production were spot on. But although the play had a fairly profound message, the philosophising near the end never quite sunk in, perhaps partly because of our distance from its original Cold War context.
Fergus Neville’s direction varied in quality. He used the space and the attractive set well, and some scenes, such as Möbius’s (George Ellis) fit of madness before his family and the physicists sitting down to a sumptuous dinner, were a joy to watch. Yet some of the blocking felt a little clumsy and unnatural. Freddie Rollason (‘Newton’) and Will Nash (Inspector Voss) looked a little uncomfortable during a fairly staged confrontation, whilst little touches like having Möbius’s children each stand up as their names were called, and having Rollason constantly pacing, felt a little overdone and artificial.
The acting was also a mixed bag. A lot of the actors were very convincing in their roles: Ellis took the lead with aplomb and gave us the greatest emotional range, whilst Jack Whitmore’s quietly mannered performance as ‘Einstein’ was also effective. Emma-Louise Howell and Hiba Benhamed also shone in smaller roles, and would have benefited from a play with a greater number of major female characters.
Amongst some of the other actors, however, there was a tendency to brush over subtleties and bellow dialogue. Although Grace Bryan had a great stage presence as Dr. Mathilde Von Zahnd, she had a tendency to declaim her lines to the audience. Will Nash, whilst on the whole convincing as Voss, allowed his performance to occasionally become a little one-dimensional. When at the height of his character’s disillusion, he barely reacts to Zahnd’s admission that the most unfortunate thing about the death of her nurses is its effect on her reputation, which surely could have been an opportunity for some biting sarcasm in the delivery of his retort. Especially at the start, some small slips in intonation prevented the audience from fully believing in the characters, and it was also a little bizarre that only one of Möbius’s three children appeared to be German.
As a Freshers’ Play, it all works relatively well. The First Years succeeded in staging a reasonably entertaining night of theatre, and I’d be keen to see Ellis and Whitmore in future productions. Part of the problem may have been that The Physicists lacks the emotional turmoil of serious theatre or the whole-hearted commitment to comedy that would have given the cast the best opportunity to display their talents. Things being as they are though, The Physicists is good, but falls well short of the benchmark set by the outstanding theatre I’ve seen so far this term.
‘The Physicists’ will be performed until Sat 28 Nov at The Assembly Rooms Theatre, Durham. Book your tickets here.
Photographs: Isabelle Pallier