Experimental Festival
AFDA Study Year: 3rd Year Live performance
Genre: Comedy/ Drama
Running Time: 60
Rating: PG
Viewing Restriction: 13

The Physicists (Kirup)

Written in 1961 - after decades of tumultuous world wars; and in the midst of North America’s poorly justified conflicts with Vietnam and the Soviet Union (and satellite states) – Freidrich Dürrenmatt surfaces the paradox of the twentieth century: at the supposed apex of reason and science, and under the banner of scientific and social progress, man became guilty of some of the most barbaric atrocities ever committed. Recent breakthroughs in nuclear physics were testimony to human ingenuity and scientific advancement; and at the same time allowed for weapons of unprecedented destructiveness. The Physicists casts crippling doubt on the likelihood that either scientists or politicians would responsibly wield the power of science. As Trump reneges on nuclear treaties with Iran (at time of printing) and North Korea brokers new alliances to the south – while a war over minorities’ bodies, freedom of speech, civil safety, domestic terrorism, gun control and uncensored access to the internet is at the top of collective minds: 2018 seemed like an appropriate time to revisit this text. Möbius (modeled after Oedipus Rex and his tragic downfall – orchestrated through his own attempts to avoid disaster) is a genius. He lives in relatively easy peace with his fellow inmates: Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein (the three most brilliant men in the modern world). And they are ruled over by a team of female nurses – and the iron will of Fräulein Dokter van Zahnd. But as corpses start to appear in the common room and the local inspector is forced to investigate the unorthodox methods of the “asylum”…we discover the unimpeachable dictates of Befehl ist Befehl (Nazi slogan “Orders are orders” – used as an excuse for atrocities during the Nuremburg trials). The original text has been abridged to accommodate a feminist, queer reading of the play. The setting is a Swiss insane asylum run by a hunchbacked female psychiatrist whose principal charges are three nuclear physicists. Two of them, believing themselves to be Einstein and Newton, have strangled their female nurses; the third, called Möbius and suffering visions of the biblical King Solomon, looks dangerously set to follow suit. But the individual murders, while horrendous enough, pale beside the larger crimes against humanity. It transpires that Möbius is a pathfinding scientific genius who has chosen to be classified insane rather than expose humanity to the consequences of his discoveries. All this, in Jack Thorne's new version, is rivetingly entertaining – and I was reminded more than once of the way, in the 1960s, Pinter's The Hothouse and Orton's What the Butler Saw used hermetic institutions as a way of exposing a wider malaise. In interviews, Dürrenmatt also freely admitted that his play owed a lot to Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, in that it shows a hero going to great lengths to avoid the disaster he feared, only to make it more inevitable. But, while it keeps you on enjoyable tenterhooks, the moral debate between the three scientists is both long-delayed and, when it finally comes, conducted in generalities. "Physics has run ahead of humanity," declares Möbius, "and humanity needs the chance to catch up." That may well be true, but I longed for more about the specifics of nuclear physics, which Michael Frayn gave us in Copenhagen. Even if this sometimes seems a scientific play with very little science, it is directed with immense verve by Josie Rourke in a Robert Jones set that beautifully evokes the luxurious austerity of a Swiss clinic. The actors also achieve the right level of serious playfulness that I assume Dürrenmatt was after. John Heffernan as the willingly immured Möbius, John Ramm as a dogged police inspector, Sophie Thompson as the power-crazed asylum boss and Miranda Raison doubling as Möbius's ex-wife and his potential clinical victim are all first-rate. As a play, with all its well-carpentered skill, it gives you a thoroughly good time. Whether it leaves you debating scientific morality or our continuing dependence on the nuclear threat is something I doubt.


Christian - Coetzee
Darragh - Concannon
Olivia - Hinckley
Chad - Julius
Kelvin - Lengasi
Arthur - Nderitu
Siyamtanda - Ngcukana


Writer - Frederich Dürrenmatt
Director - Penny Youngleson


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AFDA is the South African School of Motion Picture Medium and Live Performance, and is registered with the Department of Higher Education and Training as a private higher education institution under the Higher Education Act, 1997. Registration certificate no. 2001/HE07/012.

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