Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle, Wyndham’s Theatre

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by guest critic Gregory Forrest

German physicist Werner Heisenberg talks of pairs and duality. The one thing against the other. The one in terms of the other. Directed by Marianne Elliott and written by Simon Stephens, this is an evening of girl meet boy, of random encounters, and the unpredictability of (human) nature.

After the play’s critical success on Broadway in 2015, this new production launches Elliott’s new production company Elliott & Harper as a confident presence in the British theatrical landscape. Considering Elliott’s last collaboration with Stephens was the smash-hit techno wonderland of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, this minimalist romantic fable seems something of a departure. Yet a bit of unpredictability never hurt a night at the theatre.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle describes the mathematical inequalities of relational
measurement in quantum mechanics, and is often confused, fittingly, with the theorem that observation literally alters any subject/system being observed. While Heisenberg thinks on a quantum level, Stephens thinks theatrically. The odd couple bounce into each other with varying levels of force and momentum.

Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham are excellent as Georgie and Alex. What begins as a uninvited kiss on a train station platform expands over the evening into a strange yet compelling relationship, at varying times sweet, dangerous, and uncertain. Alex is prone to long walks. Georgie is prone to lies. Duff’s energy in particular keeps the pace of early scenes soaring, while Cranham’s soft irritations are both charming and heart-breaking.

Bunny Christie’s simple set design does an excellent job of concentrating the emotional beats of the play. White walls come close to crushing Georgie, and yet soon retreat to open out the space between the pair into what feels like several miles. To complement this white box world, Paule Constable’s lighting slides between pulsating blocks of colour and frozen silhouettes, painting the stage with feeling like an abstract canvas.

Midway through the play, Alex suggests that music exists not in the notes but in ‘the spaces between the notes’: in always guessing what comes next and being taken completely by surprise. The spark of Heisenberg as a piece of theatre lies in such moments, where its audience is captivated by these characters and forever trying to predict their next second.

Having said this, at times the play becomes predictable (which is itself rather surprising). I wonder if for Heisenberg to truly succeed the play needs to step somewhere even more random or untrue or unobservable. Or perhaps the act of unravelling clichés has become a Stephens’ cliché. The only thing I am certain of is that I laughed often and cried once. Of that I think I am certain.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle runs through 6 January.

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