Schrödinger | Theatre

Peter Gaskell critically reviews the experimental theatre piece Schrödinger about finding meaning in an unpredictable and arbitrary universe. 

Revised since its first performances in 1998, Reckless Sleepers brought their updated experimental theatre piece Schrödinger to the Sherman Theatre on 11th/12th September, as part of the World Stage Design 2013 event being held in Cardiff. At the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, sets, props and costumes were on display all week. Here at the Sherman, according to Artistic Director Mole Wetherell, and one of the cast of five, the set was the sixth performer. It was a box where the main action took place, one side removed, with trapdoors to fall through and hatches to pass players and props in and out.

Conceptually Schrödinger was about trying to find meaning in an unpredictable and arbitrary universe. Reckless Sleepers did a spectacular job of dynamically choreographing themes that are corollaries of this premise, of uncertainty, illusion, randomness. The walls of the box were used to draw images with chalk of love, time, enlightenment (heart, clock, lightbulbs). Action was fast and furious as the performers tried to establish patterns of behaviour and order based on mathematical dictats and kept you guessing what the point of it all was. By the end, it was clear enough. However frantic the action we were watching, action is ultimately futile in establishing meaning and order in the world.

During the Q&A session after the show, the cast shunned the notion of presenting a narrative with beginning, middle and end, yet narrative of a sort did emerge. The images that had been chalked up on the walls of the box finally disappeared as ‘rain’ poured through the roof of the box and washed them away. You were left with the same sense of futility about the human condition as after a performance of Waiting for Godot.

Indeed Schrödinger references Beckett more than Erwin Schrödinger, the Austrian quantum physicist. His box contained a cat, along with some radioactive material and a Geiger counter to sense the decay of the radioactive material. If detected, a hammer would be triggered to break a flask containing hydrocyanic acid which on release would kill the cat. To eliminate any certainty regarding the cat’s fate, the experiment was to take place within an hour, long enough so that some of the radioactive material could possibly decay, but short enough so that it was also possible none would. Schrödinger’s thought experiment was designed to ridicule the notion that the cat may be both dead and alive at the same time according to current quantum theory of the time (1930s) until the box is opened and its state is observed. It disappointed some in the audience that Schrödinger’s thought experiment did not have more substance in the play, either to reinforce or subvert its premise. There was really no reference other than a cat was chalked up on the wall at one point as one of the many images, and a hammer appearing in the hand of one character threatening another.

An audience needs conceptual reference points to optimise their appreciation of a work like this. As well as Beckett, Schrödinger references Magritte who had much to say about the relationship of objects to the words used to describe them. The action included chomping on some green apples with reference to more than one of Magritte’s paintings. It might have been useful for the programme to refer perhaps to these, especially perhaps ‘The Son of Man’ which shows the face of a man partly covered by a green apple. In response to questions about its meaning, Magritte said, ‘It doesn’t mean anything, because it’s mystery, and mystery means nothing, it is unknowable.’ Such makes a more pertinent strapline for the show than anything Schrödinger said about his box.

If there was a flaw in the performances, it was in the lines as they were spoken, particularly the commentary which was delivered as monologue but too quietly to follow. This was frustrating as it made it harder to get ones bearings about the points being made about certainty, illusion, futility, chance. The characters were just functionaries delivering orders or acting out instructions, as for example a man with his head covered being required to assign descriptions to images on cards he blindly displays to the audience, so wrongly naming them. Magritte again.

Dialogue was used neither for their development nor debate about the concepts being presented. It was either soliloquy or a series of commands, numbers dictated either to be written up on the walls, ending with ‘NOTHING’, the message being mathematics will lead you nowhere, or like ‘O’Grady says’, to direct pairs of actors with bottle and glass to pour and consume wine until they are rendered incapable of thought or action.

In conclusion, with reference to Magritte’s point about mystery and meaning, it is mystery that makes humans inquisitive. No one can say anything is unknowable. Schrödinger has a meaning even if it is that any attempt you make to ascribe meaning is in vain and will be washed away by new concepts and relativism. If the play did not represent the thoughts of Schrödinger sufficiently, it is appropriate to quote the man as he criticises the prevailing quantum field theory of his time, the ‘Copenhagen interpretation’.

Common sense … prevents us from so naively accepting as valid a ‘blurred model’ for representing reality … which would not embody anything unclear or contradictory. There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks.

Like Waiting for Godot, in dramatically establishing its point about the futility of seeking permanent principles in the universe, it is to Reckless Sleepers’ credit that their depiction of reality in Schrödinger was anything but a ‘blurred model’.