“Only in the madhouse we can be free. Only in the madhouse can we think our own thoughts. Outside they would be dynamite.”
The Physicists, above all else, might be considered a quite bizarre play. Set in a sanatorium for the elite in the 1960s, the tale centres on the three titular physicists – one who believes they are Einstein, another Newton, while the third, Wilhelm, is confined because he claims to have visions of King Solomon. As each murders the nurse attending them, their true natures began to unravel, and questions about sanity and insanity begin to arise.
All three of these actors are fantastically efficient at handling the various layers of illusion and delusion that makes up their parts. We first meet ‘Einstein’, played by Annabelle Haworth, who, after murdering a nurse, is immured in the throes of erratic guilt in a violin-playing frenzy. Despite the sporadic nature of her appearances, Haworth is expressive enough to familiarise us with the character, one moment in mourning, the next in a forgetful daze, the next spitting in scorn. ‘Newton’ is more present onstage, played by Sophia Sheera, and the range is broader still. Sheera plays the part of an insane man insisting he is sane, coolly discussing strangled nurses with the inspector, nonchalantly making conversational rounds with the tale-spinning of a possible compulsive liar, layering persona on top of persona.
It is Henry Phillips we see most of, as Johann Wilhelm Möbius, the tortured genius confined away from his family, full of regret over his career of choice. Phillips is accomplished in his ability to master consuming rage, looking ever the insane man, screaming, toppling tables, and very quickly shifting to a quiet kind of sanity, considering his family’s financial and emotional struggles despite his own: “now they can forget me with a clear conscience… madness costs money’.
Indeed, an interrogation of what madness consists of envelops the play, and the greater danger of sanity and scientific discovery becomes ever more apparent, as talk of the destructive power of physics – atom bombs, radioactivity – makes one wonder who the real monsters are, and what really ought to be demonized. The titular profession is one of maddening stakes – so maddening it leads them to a madhouse, insane or otherwise where the stakes turn out to be even greater.
There is method in the madness here. The revelations come thick and fast near the latter half of the play, and we are left reeling as to how true any of these characters can really be, and if we can trust anything they say at all. The ending, in my opinion, can seem a little rushed, a little confusing, even a little eyebrow-raising. But perhaps it’s supposed to be. Perhaps madness is the point. We do have to step over a strangled corpse as we take our seats, after all.