They say madness is contagious, and since Sean Foley brought the farcically insane to the West End last month with Joe Orton’s What The Butler Saw, the milieu of madness has spread to the Donmar Warehouse where Jack Thorne’s new version of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists opened last night.
In a high class sanatorium where the nurses have to be Olympic athletes in order to care for the violent residents, three physicists going by the names of Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Johann Wilhelm Möbius are classed as insane. While Möbius seems genuinely tormented by visions of King Solomon, the others – who unsurprisingly aren’t who they claim to be – are there for entirely different reasons.
Robert Jones’ clinical set is striking, with its menagerie of doors stretching as far as the ceiling, painted top to bottom in a blinding shade of white, except for one ominous green line running horizontally along the framework like the flat line heart rates of the nurses whose gruesome fates are met, one after the other, behind the asylum’s doors.
That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom. From the moment Sophie Thompson shuffles on to the stage as the asylum’s hunchbacked psychiatrist Dr Mathilde von Zahnd, you know you’re in for an evening of raucous laughter. While the Olivier Award-winning actress’ stooping shrink insists on pronouncing every syllable with impeccably posh precision, the cackled grumblings that follow lead you to believe that perhaps she is no saner than the individuals she diagnoses.
Not even a nanoparticle separates the night’s three main performances, as the extraordinarily intelligent threesome is portrayed with flawless comic vigour by an equally impressive trio of actors. John Heffernan is arresting as the passionate but nonchalant Möbius, whose scientific discoveries have the potential to destroy the universe, while Justin Salinger’s camped-up, curly-haired Newton and Paul Bhattacharjee’s inane violin-playing Einstein provide utter hilarity as the most well-spoken, gun-wielding duo you’ll ever see.
When, in reality, decanters emerge from oil paintings and light bulbs turn into wine glasses, deciphering the three men’s imaginary identities from their real ones was always going to be tricky. But all soon becomes clear in Josie Rourke’s immaculate production, as the 20 exposing lights suspended from the ceiling reveal the motives of all the asylum’s inhabitants – including the deceiving von Zahnd – while at the same time shedding an alarming, albeit hilarious, light on the dangers of the fast-evolving realm of scientific research.