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A play in London: ‘Heisenberg: the uncertainty principle’


We say: ‘You can feel the chemistry between them.’ And, if we are in the mood for physics rather than chemistry, we may say that ‘they were electric’ or that ‘the atmosphere became highly charged.’ There is, then, an established way of speaking about character or people-in-relationship that uses ideas, imagery and analogies drawn from physico-chemistry.

Primo Levi investigated the matter further; he took it to wondrous and tragic depths in his famous work, ‘The periodic table’; here, he saw the resemblance between the properties of chemical elements and certain characteristics of human beings; he even found parallels between the inert gas, argon, and the psychology of a certain religious group. At the conclusion of his discussion of ‘Potassium’ he illustrates how ‘small differences can lead to radically different consequences’ and function rather like a railway and its switch points – and he tells us how ‘the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of these differences, of knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects.’ (And not only the chemist’s trade.)

I like Primo Levi’s work and I recognised something similar – the same sort of analogy between physico-chemistry and life – in the play ‘Heisenberg: the uncertainty principle’. The play was beautifully staged, recently, at the Wyndham theatre, just off Leicester Square, in London. It’s an exhilarating play – and the acting was (and is) superb. The quantum physics of Heisenberg becomes a metaphor for the fundamental unpredictability found in the very nature of existence.

My programme told me (through a sub-title) that, more specifically, the principle means that we may as well ‘surrender to the unpredictable’. The play was animated and brought vividly and poignantly to life by the brilliant Anne-Marie Duff (who couldn’t but love Anne-Marie Duff’s Georgie?) and the crusty naturalistic Kenneth Cranham. At a certain point in the play the meaning of the Heisenberg principle, for us, is made explicit by Georgie:

If you watch something closely enough you realise you have no possible way of telling where it’s going or how fast it’s getting there,” she explains. “Did you know that? If you pay attention to where it’s going or how fast it’s moving you stop watching it properly.

In short, you can never quite tell where you ‘are’ in a relationship because it’s on the move – or where it is actually ‘going’ because that is yet to happen.

I suppose that the play – or at least Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty – might serve as a deep characterisation of our times: We cannot possibly have any clear idea of where the UK is going to ‘be’ in the next few years. (The decision to leave the European Union demonstrates how ‘small differences can lead to radically different consequences.’) And if we try to describe where the UK  ‘is’ now we overlook the fact that it is dynamic, unfolding and ‘on the move.’

Like they say in rock and roll: You gotta roll with it.

P.S. I thought the play staged at the Wyndham theatre was wonderful and I had a far more positive response to it than many of the critics. The play provided the two actors – Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham – with the opportunity to express the kind of magical interaction that sometimes brings connection and meaning to our lives – and which, momentarily, combats the intrinsic tragedy and ultimate aloneness of our shared humanity.