sun 14/07/2024

Oppenheimer, RSC, Vaudeville Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Oppenheimer, RSC, Vaudeville Theatre

Oppenheimer, RSC, Vaudeville Theatre

The dawn of the Atomic Age is brought vividly to life in this dazzling new play

Surreal and terrifying: waiting for the Trinity bomb testKeith Pattison

“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” J Robert Oppenheimer’s quotation from Hindu scripture is often used to signify the scientist’s rueful realisation, when it was too late, of what he had created in delivering an atomic bomb to the US military.

If his later, anti-nuke position has seemed a bit rich to some – what did he think was going to happen? – Tom Morton-Smith’s exceptional new play gives an inkling of how Oppenheimer could have been so hell-bent on his original course, and of the personal sacrifices, betrayals and moral justifications that got him there. It’s an intense, and densely themed production, but also one delivered with ebullient energy, charting the way in which “blood has washed away the chalk dust” of scientific invention.

There are echoes of The Imitation Game, too, in its depiction of a group of academics (in one case mathematicians, the other physicists) brought together for a war effort, resulting in a cauldron of differing personalities, egos and political leanings, their private lives tossed around in the urgent rush to win the war. For the Brits trying to crack the Enigma code, home was Bletchley Park, for the Americans trying to win the “battle of the laboratories” and beat the Nazis to a nuclear bomb, it was Los Alamos, in the New Mexico desert.

Alan Turing found himself with a dilemma after cracking the code: in order to benefit from it, he and his colleagues had to use it sparingly, making terrible choices about which lives to save, which to sacrifice to the winning of the war. Oppenheimer made his choice in advance of designing a bomb: he was ready to kill hundreds of thousands of Germans to save Allied lives. But with the Nazis defeated before the bomb was completed, playing God became even more complicated.

Morton-Smith isn’t short of ambition. The play takes us from Berkeley, the university in California where Oppenheimer (John Heffernan, pictured above) holds court at the start of the war, awash in the love of his young disciples and the utmost belief in own brilliance, to the desert, where he brings together those same students and established scientists for the top-secret Manhattan Project. It combines dazzlingly lucid and entertaining physics “lectures” to the audience, with a discourse on the political and moral arguments for and against the endeavour, and the flesh and blood melodrama in the desert, which became a hotbed of romance and procreation. And it evokes the American intellectual life of the period, one informed by émigrés escaping the war in Europe and by a belief in Communism.

In the centre is Oppenheimer. Himself a communist sympathiser, when he realises that the military is prepared to give him the biggest laboratory known to man he not only sheds his own beliefs but turns his back on those who won’t, including his brother. Heffernan plays him as appropriately complex, at once dreamer, brilliant scientist and bureaucrat, at times meekly acquiescing to those with equal wills – whether it’s the three-star general paying for his nuclear toy-shop, or a German scientist who refuses to don a military uniform – at others fiercely pragmatic, a ladies man but something of a cold fish.

And he rightly leaves us hanging about Oppenheimer, who might be called hero or villain, and in each case cuts a tragic figure. It’s a mesmerising performance, the heart and soul of a fine ensemble that includes Tom McCall and Ben Allen as two amusingly contrasting émigré scientists, one German, the other Hungarian, who reflect different aspects of Oppenheimer’s own personality, and Catherine Steadman as his communist lover, one of many whom he leaves behind for practical reasons.  

This RSC production, transferred from Stratford, is directed by Angus Jackson with a winning combination of clarity and gusto. The period is conveyed with a couple of raucous party scenes, and an atmospheric band performance during the interval, the scientific ideas in a flurry of chalking on the floor and sparing use of effects – back projections, graphic images magically appearing on a blackboard, a blast detonating on the same board.

The most startling piece of choreography comes with the Trinity bomb test, as the scientists in their goggles lie in the dirt, staring in the direction of the audience; we don’t see what they see, of course, but the moment is surreal and terrifying. Then the bomb that has been dangling symbolically above their heads turns into a glitterball, and they party in celebration.

With the Nazis defeated before the bomb was completed, playing God became even more complicated


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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