Newton, Einstein and Möbius are in a madhouse… Is that the beginning of a lame joke? No, it’s the beginning of “The Physicists”. Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play is coming to the Barron this month and promises a disturbingly unhinged theatre experience.
The tragicomedy, which, almost ironically, marks the point in Dürrenmatt’s career at which he transitioned from being labelled the enfant terrible of the Swiss theatre scene of the 1960s to a presentable, and indeed highly acclaimed playwright, is set in a madhouse and begins with a murder. One of the patients, a man believing himself to be Einstein, has killed one of the nurses, frustrating police investigators who had already been called in a week earlier to inquire into the murder of another nurse by a man convinced he is Newton. Meanwhile, fellow inmate Möbius discovers that his ex-wife and daughter are to move to the Pacific. What follows is a gradual revelation that the invalids may not actually be as deranged as they appear.
Mattia Mariotti prides himself in highlighting the insanity of not only the unpredictable and at times absurd plot twists, but also of his own directing style. Spontaneous decisions, such as including a Chinese figure of Christ, and keeping important details from the cast, are inherent parts of the mad approach he takes to staging “The Physicists”.
Out of the play’s numerous thematic layers, many of which border on moral lessons, such as comments on the use of nuclear weapons and the wicked potential of physics, Mariotti aims to use religious imagery to emphasize the curious marriage of science and religion, such as in his depiction of Möbius as a scientific martyr, who sacrifices fame as a paradigm-changing physicist in order to protect mankind from itself. Mariotti focuses on merging science and religion as “one ontological and epistemological category”. The director also places much importance on his strict visual scheme of black, white and gold, a surprisingly clear design that contrasts with the bewildering blend of insane ranting, plans for world domination, and existential despair.