While ambitious, would-be thriller The Physicists leaves much to be desired. It certainly bears some hallmarks of the Stratford Festival – some fine acting and a seemingly limitless budget – but the years have not been kind to Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1961 script, and it winds up feeling musty.
The play begins with flashbulbs in the darkness. The police are on the scene – a resident at Les Cerisiers, a private sanatorium, has killed a nurse.
The play involves three murders, in fact, committed by three male patients believing themselves to be, respectively, Sir Isaac Newton (Graham Abbey), Albert Einstein (Mike Nadajewski) and the vessel and mouthpiece of none other than King Solomon (Geraint Wyn Davies).
The story that follows is part intrigue and part philosophical debate, peppered liberally with stale humour.
Directed by Miles Potter, there are both high and low points, performance-wise. Davies evokes some serious pathos as the tortured but resolute Möbius, and Seana McKenna is typically excellent and provides some much-needed clarity as Fräulein Doktor Mathilde von Zahnd, the psychopathic matriarch of Les Cerisiers.
I couldn’t wait, however, to see the back of Möbius’ wailing wife, Lina Rose (Jane Spidell), whose one-note theatrics almost had me checking into a looney bin, too.
The show certainly looks good. Peter Hartwell’s set design is simple and elegant, save for a couple incongruous modern twists (a Mac laptop cord as a murder weapon is a little cute).
Written in the shadow of World War II and huge advances in nuclear technology, the play delves into some serious questions of scientific ethics that are still relevant today. Chief among them is the personal responsibility of scientists to ensure their discoveries are used toward the advancement of humankind, and not its downfall. Tar sands, anyone?
In the end, though, the food for thought just isn’t satisfying enough. The play struggles to draw breath despite the performers’ best efforts, and we are left with a muddled, if thought-provoking, satire.
The Physicists is running at The Stratford Festival until Sept. 27. For more information visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.
photo credit: David Hou