Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon
Written by Tom Morton-Smith
Directed by Angus Jackson
The writer of Oppenheimer, Tom Morton-Smith recently tweeted that he wished he "could phone 2011 Tom and tell him that the play he's about to start writing looks pretty damn sweet on the Swan Theatre stage." That wish is well-founded, for his is a meticulously researched play, now directed by Angus Jackson, that offers an irresistible fusion of history, art and science. J. Robert Oppenheimer was the brilliant American physicist who led the team that developed the atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. If Alan Turing's mathematical genius, in developing the Enigma machine, is credited with having ended the war in Europe, so too did Oppenheimer's work end the Pacific conflict. But where Turing's legacy was the advent of the digital age, Oppenheimer's Bomb, in his on-stage words, has left the world with “a loaded gun in the playground".
To an early rousing rendition of The Internationale, we learn of the scientist's early communist beliefs and of the commitment that he and his peers shared in opposing the fascism that threatened to engulf Europe. From that belief stemmed a commitment to harness the theories of Albert Einstein and design a bomb to drop on Spain and Germany, so powerful that it would not only end World War Two, but would end all wars thereafter...
Initially believing that they were in a race with the Germans to develop an atomic weapon, as the history plays out Oppenheimer's Project Manhattan team come to learn that not only are the Germans out of that race, but they also come to understand more of the devastating potential of the weapon they are building, with the play succinctly exploring the chain reaction that results from conscience and philosophy colliding with patriotism and occasionally, treachery too.
John Heffernan is Oppenheimer, in a tour de force of a dramatic creation the impact of which echoes the Antonioni Salieri that Peter Shaffer gave us in Amadeus. Heffernan captures the resolve and focus of the Jewish professor from New York, yet Morton-Smith embodies him with so much more detail. Emotionally crippled (and Heffernan tells achingly of how his teenage character was mercilessly bullied on camp one summer) we see his the power of his irresistible charm over women and yet also an emotional detachment that prevents him showing his newborn daughter any love. Apart from the mind-boggling science, displayed through clever equations scribbled on the stage floor, Oppenheimer's life offered a rich and varied seam of humanity that Morton-Smith has refined into a critical mass of literary genius.
Alongside Heffernan, all of this RSC company are sensational. Catherine Steadman plays Jean Tatlock, Oppenheimer's first and fatally flawed love, whilst in a performance that combines a hint of Lady Macbeth with the declining frailty of an alcoholic, Thomasin Rand's Kitty is another painful treat. William Gaminara's General Groves is every inch the military man, tasked with delivering the Bomb to the US forces, yet also responsible for managing the interface between the square-jawed servicemen and the floppy haired geniuses of the labs. On its own, this carefully crafted dynamic that evolves between the clipped yet perceptive fighting man and the professor, is worth the price of a ticket. Elsewhere, Michael Grady-Hall convinces as Oppenheimer's overshadowed sibling as Ben Allen and Tom McCall are noteworthy fellow scientists.
The enriched production values of the play define all that is spectacular in one of this nation's world-class theatre companies. Designer Robert Innes Hopkins offers a striking X-frame, thrust diagonally up and into the Swan's space. (And it's remarkable how in an auditorium so Shakespearean in its design, that such a profoundly modern story can be so comfortably accommodated.) As the Heath-Robinson like test bomb that was first detonated at Los Alamos is revealed being slowly winched up the steel frame (and the RSC have constructed a remarkable facsimile) the visual yet subtle horror of the infernal contraption is breathtaking. Paul Anderson lights the Swan perfectly, his lamps cleverly suggesting the intimacy of a cocktail party or the harsh sunlight of the rattlesnake infested Nevada desert. A nod too for the talented Grant Olding, whose music (enchantingly performed by a six piece gallery ensemble) only adds a further texture to the work.
Combining sex and drugs and science with the ultimate of killing machines, suggests that whether or not Oppenheimer transfers beyond Stratford (and it should), the RSC would do well to consider turning this play into a movie. Morton-Smith's work is a stunning opus of history and analysis told as the most fascinating, and ultimately horrifying, of stories.
Runs to 7th March 2015