Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle

The idea of music existing “between the notes” seems to be the best description of Heisenberg. A bit like the principle from which it takes it’s name, that you cannot view a thing and observe it’s momentum at once. The music analogy is more romantic though. And there is romance to Stephens’ script. Even if it is not the traditional kind.

The script itself feels a bit like a science experiment- a viewing of distinct, choice moments in a relationship history. Again with gaps, unobserved, unknown where we cannot be certain where our particles- Georgie and Alex- are in those moments. Neither can we quite be sure where they are heading at any given moment we do observe them. Science analogies aside, seeing only snapshots of a relationship, watching it evolve in abstract is both charming and engaging. It feels like a series of dates for the audience, and it draws us in wondering about the next moment as well as the ones missed in between. It’s a fast-paced, contemporary feeling way to catch up with an unusual relationship drama.

The plot follows Georgie and Alex- she a 42 year old woman, he a 72 year old man as she kisses him on the neck in a station, through to New Jersey, a hunt for her son and a complex at times questionable relationship. They move through bafflement (mostly his) to flirtation (hers initially but he soon joins in) to deception (possibly, her or possibly incredibly frank honesty), to recrimination and reconciliation. It’s a fast paced perpetual motion that means- to continue the metaphor- you couldn’t pin down where anyone is exactly if you tried.

The pace is pulled along by Elliott’s direction. It’s slick and stylish to look at but there’s weight to the pacing and movement that accompanies it. The actors power on at a pace, moving from scene to scene, but there are moments of real air there, and points they and the story gets to breathe and take in the moments of human reflection the script has-sometimes slightly hidden. It’s a play that could be done with a bare stage and a table (as indeed the 2016 Broadway production did) but theatre is a visual medium as well and the stylish light-box staging and Contemporary-Dance influenced movement transitions help flesh out the world of snapshots Stephens has written. In the transitions- slick and aesthetically pleasing as they are- we get hints of the moments of transition in between scenes as well. None of it exactly clear, which is how it should be, but all of it building a picture. The set itself- brilliantly realised by Bunny Christie- creates a backdrop that’s at once white and sterile and indeed scientific, but also filled with light and movement. Paul Constable’s lighting design compliments it perfectly creating a rich but abstract backdrop for the couple’s stories to be told against.

The stories themselves are told with expert precision by Ann-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham. The acting masterclass you might expect there’s a visible chemistry between them that allays any reservations about the unusual relationship the characters have. Duff is a powerhouse of chatter and energy, but also pulls it back to quiet reflection when needed. You feel the vulnerability beneath- whether it’s a moment her mask of chatter drops and a quieter exchange takes it’s place, or her physical interactions with Cranham, Duff understands the nuances between Georgie’s ‘Exhausting or exhilarating’ persona. Cranaham gives his gruff butcher Alex a sweetness alongside world-weariness and slight world-wariness. It’s a charming performance, really pulled together by the moments of reflection and sadness when he alludes to his loneliness often with an air of steadfast resignation. There is a neat balance as well as chemistry between the two performances that truly lift this play up.

Heisenberg is an interesting reflection on the nature of relationships, and the oddities of human life. Do you question their plausibility? judge their actions and words to each other? Yes. But so we do the ‘real’ couples we know and observe. And that was key in Heiseberg- it’s an observation of a relationship, a set of moments captured that are fascinating to watch. It’s not a play asking for a scientific conclusion, more one recording it’s set of observations for future reference. And human relationships-particularly of the romantic kind- never run short of things to study. And as the principle itself suggests, we can never see all things at once. The snapshots Stephens gives us, and the world Elliott creates lets us also imagine what goes on ‘between the notes’.

It’s a brave and bold first outing for Elliott Harper- a ‘small’ in scale play on a big stage in every sense. But bringing with it a solid play, in a safe pair of hands to perform it makes it a strong  first statement. Theatre doesn’t have to re-invent the wheel every time, and this production gives us good theatre- interesting stories, well performed with slick interesting direction. I wrote previously on my excitement at Elliott Harper’s arrival in the West End (here) and this production has firmly cemented that excitement.

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle is at the Wyndams Theatre until January 6th 2018

Published by Emily Garside

Academic, journalist and playwright. My PhD was on theatrical responses to the AIDS epidemic, and I continue to write on Queer theatrical history. Professional nerd of all things theatre.

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