Three shows in and it's harder than ever to see what identity Josie Rourke is trying to give the Donmar Warehouse under her Artistic Directorship: She takes the director's reins again for Jack Thorne's new translation of The Physicists, Friedrich Dürrenmatt's 1962 satire of Cold War fears. In the old wing of an insane asylum, only three patients remain. Two think they're famous physicists, Albert Einstein (Paul Bhattacharjee) and Sir Isaac Newton (Justin Salinger.) The third, Möbius (John Heffernan) is a physicist, who believes King Solomon appears to him daily to impart wisdom. As the play opens, Einstein and Newton have each murdered one of the nurses; and Möbius' relationship with his own nurse (Miranda Raison) seems to be following an uncomfortably similar pattern. I've seen people name-check Doctor Strangelove with regard to the play, and there's certainly a sense of the gently, but threateningly surreal to the affair.
The play's own Strangelove figure is the head of the asylum, the hunchbacked Dr Mathilde von Zahnd (an unrecognisable Sophie Thompson, looking a bit as if Miss Trunchbull has crossed the road from The Cambridge) and as the author's central points become clearer in the second act, when the three patients/physicists finally sit down all together, we see that the institution she runs is a microcosm of the Cold War: Einstein and Newton represent opposing sides, while the central figure of Möbius is torn between the excitement of discovery, and the terror of what horrors these discoveries could unleash on the world.
Jan actually is a physicist so his perspective was interesting; he did have some comments about the actual physics discussed, but when he found out when the play was written he said the science was consistent with the period. He was more annoyed by the second act's putting Dürrenmatt's points across in such a blunt form, of the three characters simply discussing and arguing them. I've seen worse offenders on that front but have to agree the second act, though clarifying what the playwright's trying to say, lacks the first half's engaging oddity, and I must admit these scenes of theorising and arguing lost me a bit. At least the cast live up to their promise, The Heff in what is essentially the lead role getting to explore a great deal of different sides to Möbius. From reactions to some of her recent roles I get the impression Sophie Thompson is a bit Marmite (except, unlike with actual Marmite, I've always been on the "love" side of the fence.) People with reservations about her might find this another overly broad performance, but I thought it fit in perfectly with the play's expressionistic mood, and Jan also singled her out for praise.
It's interesting that Cold War plays seem to be coming back into vogue, there must be something about them that strikes a chord. The Physicists still feels like a bit of a strange choice of play to revive in such a high-profile production, but in its first half especially it provides a lot of quirky fun (and, thanks to Robert Jones' set, has a lovely little coup de théâtre to end the evening on.)
The Physicists by Friedrich Dürrenmatt in a version by Jack Thorne is booking until the 21st of July at the Donmar Warehouse.
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.