Sunday 15 February 2015

Tom Morton-Smith - Oppeheimer playwright - In Conversation

In rehearsal for Oppenheimer, director  Angus Jackson (l) and Tom Morton-Smith

Last month the RSC presented the world premiere of Oppenheimer, a new play by Tom Morton-Smith, in the Swan Theatre at Stratford upon Avon. (Click here to read my review of the play)

Looking at the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist who during the Second World War led the Project Manhattan team that developed the USA's atomic bomb, Oppenheimer's subject matter is vast and complex, drawing in history, science, politics and morality. To the credit of all involved, Oppenheimer has opened to rave reviews.

I caught up with Morton-Smith for a brief conversation to understand a little more about bringing this compelling story to the stage. 

JB:         Tom, what drew you to write Oppenheimer?

TMS: I've been interested in writing a play about physics for quite some time, mostly because play writing should always be about writing what fascinates you. I developed a bit of a hobbyist kind of fascination with physics in my 20's and ended up reading lots of popular science books, and reading lots of history books on it, as well. When the RSC invited me to pitch to them the biggest idea I could think of, I thought, "Okay, let's go with a play about physics." There's not much bigger, than a play about Oppenheimer, and the building of the atom bomb.

JB:        Even before then, going back to school, was it science or arts for A Levels? 

TMS: I was all arts. I was never very good at maths or science at school. It just never excited me. My A-Levels were Media, Theatre, and English lit. I went to do drama and creative writing at drama university and then went to drama school afterwards. I've never been formally trained or interested in physics. I was very much coming at it from a lay person's point of view. 

So I was teaching myself the science aspect of it at the same time as I was learning about the biographies and the history. That was the easiest way for me into the science, to learn it through the people who were discovering it and talking about it.

Physics is so wonderful just in the way that it's talking about the tiny world, as well as talking about quanta and quantum and atoms and you're talking about the movements of the stars and the planets. It's so rich in metaphor. When you're talking about atoms falling apart and splitting, and energy being released, and you're reading about the scientists who discovered these things, you can't help but find the metaphors and the links between the science and the people, and what they're going through. And then, when you're talking about something like the Second World War, which split the world down the middle, it was just full of appropriate metaphors. 

JB:       I remember, as the play was coming to the end of its rehearsals and just before it previewed, that you tweeted saying how you wished you could telephone "the 2011 you" and tell you about how the play looks now on the Swan stage. What happened in 2011? Is that when you first pitched to the RSC? 

TMS: Yes, that was the first time. It's hard to make a living as a playwright. I've been working full time in retail (at Waterstones, the booksellers) for the last 10 years. Every point that I get in my career, where I'm just at a wobble, I'm trying to go, "Do I want to continue with this, or is it about time I start thinking about having a proper career, and a proper job?" Then you get a little seed of interest from somewhere that goes, "I guess I'll keep going for a bit longer." 

It was at that point that the RSC gave me the seed commission where they gave me a little bit of money, and said, "Go away and write the first draft of this play. Bring it back to us in a year, and we'll talk again then." At every point that I returned with a new draft of the play, it made it over that hurdle, so it built and built. I was convinced that at some point, they're just going to say, "Okay, that's great, but it's not for us," and then it would be dead in the water. Thankfully, that didn't happen. 

JB:         Have Waterstones celebrated your association with them?

TMS: I don't know. I never really told head office or anything. I always ordered in copies of my plays in the stage play section of the bookshop, and faced them out with a little recommendation.

JB:     One of the things that struck me as I said in my review, was seeing Oppenheimer, this character from history, albeit modern history, exposed in such detail on stage. Your work reminded me of what Peter Shaffer achieved in telling us all so much about Salieri in his play, Amadeus. What were the challenges that you encountered in writing Oppenheimer? 

TMS: The wealth of information that I needed to get across, in order to tell the story of Oppenheimer. You need to tell the history of Communism in America. You need to tell the major points of the start of the second World War, and how the Russians came to be involved, and you need to clearly explain where we were scientifically at the time, and what that science was. All the politics and the history and the science, trying to gauge how much your audience knows and how much you need to tell them. That was always quite tricky, and quite a balancing act. I'm a strong believer in not underestimating your audience, so the first 10, 15 minutes of the play, I just throw them in at the deep end and throw everything at them and unpack it later, hopefully.

JB:       The play has broadly received rave reviews. Tell me about what your reaction has been to the play’s reception. 

TMS: It's one of those weird things. Until you put it in front of a paying audience, you don't really know what you've got. Before then, everyone's saying: "It's great. It's going really well. It's really exciting." Then you’re sat in the Swan when the lights go down, John Heffernan walks on and then you're stuck in that room with 450 paying members of the public for the next three hours.

From that first moment, when they laugh at one of my gags, that's a bit of a relief. By the end, the responses that I've gotten from the audiences and the way they've been applauding and the way that they've been so attentive, certainly toward the end of the second half, where it starts getting darker and more uncompromising, on most nights you can hear a pin drop. I saw every preview night. It was an amazing feeling, to be in that room, when everyone is so attentive. 

JB:      Grant Olding's music adds a further dimension to the play. How closely did you work with Grant as the music was coming together? 

TMS: When we started putting together the creative team, they put me and Angus Jackson, the director, together first. We did some workshops and I had written the songs included in the play into the script. When we got to the point where we were putting together the creative teams for the production, we got Robert Innes Hopkins, the designer, and Scott Ambler, the choreographer, lighting and sound, and of course, Grant, as well. That's when we started pulling people together.

I didn't meet Grant until the very first day of rehearsals. We had a bit of a chat, and he kept popping in to the rehearsals as we were going, and he would keep sending over bits of music that he had written. If it worked for what we wanted, then we'd keep it. If it wasn't quite right, Angus would say, "Actually, can you do something a bit more like this?" It was great just to occasionally get an email through, during our lunch break. "Oh, Grant sent some more music. Let's listen to it.” If it was an underscoring for a speech or for a scene, we'd start using it in rehearsal. The music became very knitted into the rehearsal process.

JB:       It struck me that the play would translate well to the screen. Is that something that was (or is) ever in your mind?

TMS: Some bits would. I don't think all of it would. The direct address stuff and the more poetic elements wouldn't transfer directly onto screen. It's always tricky when you're writing a play that requires lots of short themes, that you don't want it to seem filmic. The language is of a heightened level, that would actually seem a bit odd on film. 

If I was to ever consider turning it into TV or film, it would maintain its overall structure, but for a different media. 

JB:         What next for you? 

TMS: I don't know, really. I've got several projects I've been working on, off and on, for the last couple of years, that I've got some interest in. I'm just trying to wait and see which one of those will run first. Writing this play has taken up so much of my life the last few years, it will be quite refreshing to turn my brain on to something else. 

JB:     Tom, thank you very much indeed and congratulations again on Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer continues at The Swan theatre until 7th March 2015

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