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Tom Mannion - The Appliance of Science in Copenhagen

There’s something of the nutty professor about Tom Mannion. It’s not just the way the Glasgow-born actor and Royal Shakespeare Company stalwart absent-mindedly forgets our appointment, and has to be hauled back to Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre, where he’s about to appear in Michael Frayn’s play, Copenhagen. It’s more to do with the way he enthuses about everything with the zeal of the recently converted who’s just had a eureka moment. One minute he’s talking a mile a minute, singing the praises of the play he’s relishing getting to grips with, the next he’s up on his feet, pulling a hangdog expression and doing a wicked expression of boffinish director Jonathan Miller, who Mannion worked with on a production of The Cherry Orchard.

All this goes some way to explaining how Mannion was cast in Copenhagen as Nils Bohr, the Nobel Prize-winning Danish quantum physicist who in 1941 was visited by his younger colleague, Werner Heisenberg, with whom he developed the Uncertainty Principle in the 1920s. In the heat of Nazi-occupied Denmark, however, and with the German-born Heisenberg developing atomic energy in his homeland for ‘practical’ purposes, the rift that occurred between the two men may well have changed the course of history. With no known record of Bohr and Heisenberg’s conversation, however, Frayn’s 1998 play re-imagines their ghosts, alongside Bohr’s wife, forensically dissecting the thinking behind Heisenberg’s visit. With an entire world at stake, the dramatic result is one of the most dizzyingly thought-provoking exchanges ever committed to the stage.

“It’s been fascinating researching it,” Mannion says, ever so slightly pop-eyed, “because there’s reams and reams of material, and stuff about all these other scientists who are referenced in the play. I wanted to do something which involved my head a bit. My oldest friend, who I’ve known since nursery school, is a nuclear physicist, and he works in Germany on a particle accelerator. He talks sometimes about his work, about how particles change and so forth, then he’ll ask me about Shakespeare and I’ll tell him stuff. So the language of physics isn’t that far away. This play is something of a thought experiment, which explores the curious diary memory is.”

While he’s clearly passionate about understanding every word of what is an unremittingly dense play, Mannion is reluctant to hang any other interpretation or concept on his character. Ask him what Bohr is like in his eyes, and he’ll stick to the facts as he’s discovered them. Mannion is happy to state that Bohr “was quite a mysterious sort of man, and I’m told a very warm man. I think he’s lovely, and it seemed to be an amazing relationship he had with his wife. He was a man who allowed the possibilities for very young men like Heisenberg to go on and do things. He was very open to debate. He was a good man. He did kill a hundred thousand people, though,” he adds. “He was part of that. Heisenberg never killed anyone.”

Mannion isn’t making a judgement when he points this out, but is merely pointing out the universal enormity of his discoveries, both in real life events and the play. He makes no bones about being far more interested in the language than any moral world-view.

“I’m a person who just exists in the language,” he says, and quotes a line from the play. “‘We turn ourselves into mere adjuncts of God’s noble purposes.’ This is my job, to turn myself into an adjunct of the author’s noble purposes. That’s where I’m coming from. I don’t look for any sub-text. You just have to do it on the moment.”

Mannion’s stage career began aged seventeen, playing guitar in a covers band, touring around Glasgow’s working men’s clubs in the early 1970s. One night after the show he got chatting to a girl in the bar, who said she was about to start the acting course at RSAMD. Curious, and with possible ulterior motions on his mind, Mannion decreed to audition as well.

“I decided to go there to meet her again,” he remembers, “but I got in by accident, and I never saw her again. I don’t know what happened to her, but she was really lovely. But once I was there, I kept thinking I was going to get found out. It was terrifying, everybody talking about Chekhov and Shakespeare. Then one day we did this exercise wearing half masks, and when I put in on I became really nasty. It woke up the devil in me, and I liked it. Then we did The Cherry Orchard, and I played Lophakin, who I played thirty years later for Jonathan Miller. There was a bit of the character I recognised. I liked him, and I saw a bit of myself in there, and it was then I realised I wasn’t playing at being an actor anymore, but I was one. There was a weird kind of alchemy going on somewhere.”

This alchemy continued when he was cast in his first professional role in a production of Romeo and Juliet in Crewe. The actress playing Juliet, Diana Hardcastle, was under close scrutiny by London casting directors who, on seeing Mannion onstage, picked him up as well. Mannion arrived at the RSC for his first three year stint in 1982. Other alumni of that year included Anthony Sher, Mark Rylance and Pete Postlethwaite. From playing lowly spear carriers with two or three lines, within a year, Mannion was appearing on Broadway.

Much of Mannion’s approach, if that’s not over-stating whatever it is he does that makes him so electric onstage, one suspects comes from this time.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” he says, “so I had no baggage and allowed whatever was going to happen to me to just happen. I got to tour Europe and Los Angeles, and got to meet Jack Lemmon and Gregory Peck. Suddenly I was in that world, and that was extraordinary. All of that came out of that job in Crewe. You don’t think about it. You just do it.”

Last time Mannion appeared on a Scottish stage was with the RSC on a dual tour of Coriolanus and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Prior to that, again with the RSC, was in a production of The Duchess of Malfi. As far as Scotland is concerned, though, Mannion’s defining moment was when he took the title role in Edwin Morgan’s version of Cyrano de Bergerac. Originally opening at The Traverse during 1992’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the production combined the company’s swashbuckling physicality with Morgan’s toothsome Scots translation to make for one of the defining pieces of its era. The production was revived four years later on the Lyceum’s bigger stage, where he also played in Oedipus Rex and David Mamet’s Oleanna.

“The language in Cyrano was so exciting,” Mannion says. “This beautiful poetry which you could have great fun with. Like I say, I exist in language.”

Mannion says he’s not an ambitious actor, and there’s clearly been no science to his career to date. Ask him of there’s any roles he’s burning to play, and initially he’ll claim not to think about such things. Once he’s thought about it, though, yet another alchemist comes to mind.

“I wouldn’t mind a go at playing Prospero,” he says, musing over the magic of The Tempest. “Maybe that would be fun to do.”

Copenhagen, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, April 17-May 9
www.lyceum.org.uk

The Herald, April 17th 2009

ends

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