There seems to have been a plethora of dramatic interpretations of the troubled lives of geniuses recently. We’ve had Steven Hawkins, Alan Turing and now The Royal Shakespeare Company bring us the biopic of the ‘father of the atomic bomb’ “Oppenheimer” which has just opened at the Vaudeville Theatre.
We are introduced to J Robert Oppenheimer (John Hefferman) a theoretical physicist and professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley at a house-party raising funds for Republicans fighting the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. The party is being thrown by Robert’s lover Jean Tatlock (Catherine Steadman) who, like most of the guests politically identifies with the Communist party. Also at the party are some of Robert’s students and fellow academics, including his brother Frank (Michael Grady-Hall) and his wife Jackie (Hedydd Dylan). In the flash of an eye, the party disappears and the students/academics are working on theories to split the atom and release its power which can then be harnessed. Unfortunately, this being 1941, the Berkeley team have rivals in Europe in the shape of German scientists working on the same ideas but with the believed intention of developing a bomb as part of their promised super-weapons programme. With the war in Europe dragging on and with America likely to have to join at some point the US president – Franklin D Roosevelt – approved the starting up of a program to develop an atomic bomb and thus the Manhattan Project came into being. Picked by the military head of the project General Groves (William Gaminara) to head up the scientific side, Robert moves to Los Alamos with his wife Kitty (Thomasin Rand) and most of his team to start work on what he – possibly naively – hoped would be the weapon to prevent all wars.
“Oppenheimer” is an interesting and intriguing play in many respects. Tom Morton-Smith has obviously researched the life of J (possibly standing for Julius) Robert Oppenheimer in great detail and as an audience we get to know much of the mind of the great man – his inability to be faithful to one woman, his willingness to sacrifice his own beliefs and even other people in the pursuit of science and his drive to succeed with his project, causing him to withdraw into himself, closing out other people and ideas as his focus narrows to his new babies – the ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ bombs. John Hefferman is outstanding in the lead role moving effortlessly from academic lecturer to whimsical lover, to deranged scientist bringing life to a man that we know so little about apart from his one great quote, said after the first test of an atomic weapon ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’
Angus Jackson’s direction worked extremely well. The opening sequence flitting between the frivolous, happy party and the studious laboratory – with the students chalking their calculations on the walls and floor – and back again was wonderfully done. Even the ‘science bits’ were brilliant, making use of Karl Dixon’s videography to illustrate the scientists’ explanation of how nuclear fusion works in such a way that not only did I not feel patronised but I felt that I was pretty much ready to re-take my Physics GCSE with a hope of passing this time. The quality of the production itself is quite simply brilliant. Superbly delivered by a large and very strong cast, with some great music and dancing (choreographer Scott Ambler’s brilliant handiwork) in what is I think one of the stand-out plays of the year so far.
If I am honest, I felt that aspects of the script were written very much with the benefit of hindsight – for example the revelations about the German atomic efforts – and in many ways to me reflected the political beliefs of the author rather than given a clear narrative of what had happened. For example, the little boy and, to my mind, the overly long reaction to the effects of a nuclear bomb, seemed unnecessary to me growing up in the 70s and 80s in the shadow of the Cold War. This is however, one of the greatest strengths of the writing and performance. Whatever your ultimate opinion, It is impossible not to be hooked on the story of the work and sacrifices made by the dedicated teams involved in getting the programme to the ultimate point of deciding to whether or not to deploy the bombs. The play really illustrates that sometimes these decisions are not a simple as one might think and sometimes there are no black or whites, only differing shades of grey.
I believe that “Oppenheimer” will get you leaving the theatre thinking about not only the bombs and their use (whether right or wrong) to end the war but also about the men and women behind the whole programme and especially Robert Oppenheimer himself who somehow managed to live a ‘normal’ life by justifying his work thus “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb”.
Review by Terry Eastham
Running Time: 2 hours 35 minutes
Age Restrictions: Suitable for 12+
Evenings: Monday to Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Wednesday and Saturday 2.00pm
Show Opened: 27th March 2015
Booking Until: 23rd May 2015
2nd April 2015