Oppenheimer, RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon, review
23rd January 2015
“We could make a star on the surface of the Earth”. Time and again in this triumphantly assured drama about the American physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and his supervision of the wartime race to build the atomic bomb, there are phrases that leap out and draw you into the wonder, and the horror, of mankind’s journey to a brave new world of potential total annihilation.
This breakthrough for playwright Tom Morton-Smith is a sure-fire hit for the RSC. I bought, tried and struggled with the 2005 Pulitzer-winning biography of Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, overwhelmed by its megaton of info. Morton-Smith’s fizzier, whizzier account, though, harnesses the virtues of theatre, with a hint of applied nuclear science.
Different elements of the story – which takes us from 1939 and the seeds of the Manhattan Project to its bitter fruit with the dropping of Little Boy on Hiroshima in 1945 – are combined and collided to produce an evening greater than the sum of its many brisk scenes. It also couldn’t be more timely given the recent resurgence of nuclear-war fears.
One moment, we’re watching a party in full jazzy swing at the Oppenheimer residence in Berkeley – a fundraiser for lefties against Franco. The next, half the room hurl themselves down and start feverishly chalking complex equations on the floor; we’re now in Berkeley’s theoretical physics department, ricocheting with shock and awe at news of German success with uranium fission.
The show’s vigour owes much to director Angus Jackson, who unleashes phenomenal energy from his assembled mass of 20 actors. One unforgettable vignette follows the first bomb-test in the New Mexico desert: the sinister prototype has been winched up over our heads along a steel girder and, after simulated detonation, the cast dance and prostrate themselves in slow-mimed ecstasy to this new god of fire.
Credit for the show’s rigour, though, must go to Morton-Smith. If some of the characterisation is as sketchy and elusive as a restless electron, the play’s nucleus is packed with fascinating nuggets and bristling with ideas. This is a portrait of a man who risked becoming split in two himself. His allegiance to Communist ideals and pals was tested to destruction, his adherence to patriotic values entailed taking sides in the battle between military and scientific priorities and, finally, he’s unclear whether he has achieved a justifiable end to war or a future nightmare beyond measure. “I feel I’ve left a loaded gun in a playground,” he observes mournfully.
As “Oppie”, John Heffernan is every inch a commanding boffin – pale, angular, debonair, his down-turned lips often curling in disdainful arrogance but very much the bright star with a cold core of iron. At times addressing us as though we were at a lecture-theatre (there’s even a blackboard for lightning-fast lessons), he often catches our sympathy unawares, tears forming as the weight of the war-effort, private griefs and wider responsibilities sits heavily on his shoulders.
The cigarette-puffing period ambience is well caught; its inequalities too. Among the decreasingly happy women in Oppenheimer’s life, Thomasin Rand shines as his alluring botanist wife Kitty, while Catherine Steadman impresses as his live-wire, half-abandoned Commie-lover Jean Tatlock.
Michael Grady-Hall, playing his estranged physicist brother Frank, gets a powerful scene urging him to share the new deadly knowledge with rival powers.
The play could afford to blind us with even more technical data. But, overall, this ambitious attempt to encapsulate a complex scientific and historical chapter – and the contradictions of its leading light – delivers the dazzling spectacle of brilliant minds at unparalleled work during a time of unprecedented darkness.
This review was first published in the Daily Telegraph, 23 Jan 2015