There are many good elements to Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle – sparky performances, smart direction and a seductive production design – but at the heart of this play is a horribly reductive depiction of a woman that is hard to look past.
The set-up is simple, if more than a little problematic. Georgie (Anne-Marie Duff) has just made a terribly awkward public display of mistaken identity. Alex (Kenneth Cranham) had been sitting by himself on a bench when Georgie, thinking he was someone else, came up and kissed him gently on the neck. Only Alex wasn’t who Georgie thought he was, so, as you can imagine, it’s awkwardness and embarrassment all round.
Only, it quickly transpires that Georgie knew that this man was not who she claimed she had mistaken him for. In fact, that man she claimed Alex was doesn’t even exist and pretty much everything she says in the first ten minutes transpires to be a fabrication. Is Georgie a compulsive liar? Is she mentally ill? Why on earth would a woman kiss a strange man in public??
And this, people, is where we have our problem. To a man, this seems a minor suspension of disbelief, I’m sure. To a woman, however… This would never, ever happen. Read the stories in the press, listen to women on social media… No women would make such a sexual advance – harassment – to a man she didn’t know, let alone in broad daylight in a public space. We are just not socialised that way. We live in fear of harassment on the streets; we are not instigators. To suggest otherwise, well, we’re in the realms of male fantasy here.
And that’s even without touching on the sizeable age gap between the two leads.
Nevertheless, from this odd start, the two strangers plunge headlong into a passionate and surprising relationship that changes them both. I appreciate that writer Simon Stephens’s thinks he redeems Georgie by the motivation that is later revealed but, let me state this plainly, that rationale, by any woman’s standards, would not explain Georgie’s actions.
The simple truth is that no woman would ever have written this. Georgie is a male fantasy – ditzy and kooky, crazy and fully prepared to use sex as a weapon to get what she wants. Even if AMD saves her from being offensive, she is still two-dimensional and denied any believable complexity.
Clearly, AMD must have recognised the challenges in making this character sympathetic and realistic as she exaggerates the emotions, whether it’s the highs or the lows. I get why she does this – it’s almost necessary in order to make elements of her behaviour logical – but does theatre really need another depiction of a crazy woman? It breaks my heart. This isn’t women; this wasn’t a woman.
The direction from Marianne Elliott is, as you would expect, sublime. The running time is taut and pacey at only ninety minutes long but yet there is plenty of space found for laughs to be had and for the anguish to land. And when blended with Bunny Christie’s superb set of constantly shifting walls saturated with colour, the result is impressive. By way of example, the scene where the walls turn black and start to cave in on Georgie as she is crushed in a moment of despair is particularly affecting.
I don’t want to be 100% down on Simon Stephens’s writing – there are touching moments when it explores private grief – but even gender politics aside, the weaving in of the science is a bit loose. This isn’t a Constellations or The Effect. The Uncertainty Principle from the play’s title refers to what is seen and unseen if we examine a situation too closely. Actions can surprise us and this, I think, is meant to give context to the profound impact that this cute-meet has on both these characters. I mean, it’s a nice idea but I can’t say it is an awakening. The science feels like more of an addendum than its spine.
Overall, Heisenberg seems an odd choice by the new Elliott & Harper production team to have as a debut play. I appreciate Marianne Elliott and Simon Stephens go back a long way but what does this say about what they will bring to the landscape of British theatre? This is an extremely White production and, frankly, think how much more could have been said – implicitly and explicitly – by platforming work from a female playwright, especially a WOC.
And, certainly, given the stories of sexual assault, harassment and the treatment of women in the press today, this play seems awkwardly out of place. I appreciate Simon Stephens wrote this play a couple of years ago but the extent to which it is out of date is obvious. So, for all the style in Heisenberg, its substance remains a worry. And, in that way, it is yet another stone in all that is problematic with theatre right now. Shame. I was hoping it would be part of the solution.
Wyndham’s Theatre, London, to January 6, 2018
All production images by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg