The Physicists: A review

Photo: Miriam Spinrath and Janika Valentin

The Physicists, or Die Physiker, is a satirical play written by Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt. The plot revolves entirely around the drawing room of a 1960’s Swiss asylum and follows the doings of three incarcerated ‘physicists’ and their eccentric doctor. The show’s producers opted for an unconventional approach by staging the performance entirely in German, with English subtitles. For the average non-German speaking audience member, this promised to be a novel and unique experience.

The actors were already in character as theatregoers filtered into the sold-out Barron theatre; police officers armed with magnifying glasses inspected amongst the audience, whilst a stony-faced nurse stood above a ‘dead’ body splayed on the floor. With the Barron theatre being quite a small venue, the cast did well to maintain their personas at such close proximity to the audience. This continued into the performance, where the first true taste of German theatre was dished out. The German dialogue certainly brought an exotic element to the play, giving it a more authentic and peculiar tone, which suited the show dynamic well. The Physicists was an undeniably bizarre story, characterised by many twists and multi-faceted plotlines. The cast did well to capture this, in what was not a native language for all of them, and acted impressively for the most part. Several characters were portrayed particularly well. For instance, Tom Josten (playing Newton), demonstrated a highly convincing grasp of what it was to be an egocentric madman. Similarly, Richard Marenbach (Fräulein Doktor von Zahnd) executed an excellent performance of a deranged woman, peaking a powerful monologue at the most climactic point in the play.

However, the premise of a subtitled play did not transpire to be as well thought out as the rest of the performance. Text was projected onto a strip of black wall above the stage. Whilst this was successfully informative for the most part, the visual experience was compromised by having to constantly flit between the subtitles and stage. It was easy to miss some of the action whilst keeping up with the words, especially during long pieces of dialogue from a single character, where large blocks of text had to be read more quickly. Although the majority of the words were legible, there were times when they became distorted by pipes along the wall, or the writing was not perfectly in time with a scene. Altogether, this prevented the show from being as relaxing or enjoyable as it deserved to be, since a focused effort was required at all times in order to merely comprehend the play. Additionally, there was an elevated risk in becoming lost if some of the dialogue was missed, especially for the slower readers amongst the audience.

Nevertheless, the play did contain a number of comedic scenes, which were not lost on the audience. The show was scattered with satirical remarks of wit, whilst the caricatured portrayals of other well-known figures – such as Einstein and Newton – served as another source of amusement. Whilst some characters risked coming across as hyperbolised to the point of ridiculous, most remained melodramatic to an appropriate degree.

Despite the mishaps and inconveniences associated with the play’s subtitles, the cast of The Physicists undoubtedly gave a commendable and talented performance, which still made for an entertaining evening. The atypical format of the show provided the audience with a wider cultural experience, which was definitely worthwhile.


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