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Operation Epsilon by Alan Brody at Southwark Playhouse

Simon Chandler (Von Laue), Leighton Pugh (Gerlach), credit Pamela Raith.
Simon Chandler (Von Laue), Leighton Pugh (Gerlach), credit Pamela Raith.

Alan Brody’s two-act drama about the 11 preeminent German nuclear scientists, including three Nobel laureates, who are detained in an English country manor following their country’s surrender (but just before the American atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima) is no act of avant-garde theatre. Operation Epsilon is a decidedly conventional play – enacted entirely by and about men (save a fleeting but crucial offstage appearance from exiled Jewish physicist Lise Meitner). The story is told through dialogue – with a large segment devoted to the drafting of a memorandum — in a drawing room. You can’t get much talkier than a dozen characters (there’s a British military officer, Major T.H. Rittner (Simon Bubb) guarding the professors and researchers) arguing over the contents of an open letter. Yet somehow, in its pared-down theatricality, both this fascinating historical moment and the troubling moral question of compartmentalising ‘the pursuit of knowledge’ from the application of it in genocide and war comes alive without gimmick.

Janie E. Howland’s naturalistic set comprises two levels of Farm Hall, drawing focus between the public rooms, where the men gather together, to the upstairs bedrooms, where we see quieter, more personal moments. In both spaces, director Andy Sandberg’s production articulates the dawning personal agony of the play’s central question as experienced by each character: as gifted scientists, did each personally aid the Nazis through crimes of omission?

Brody is both a playwright and an academic at MIT (the play premiered in Cambridge, Massachusetts a decade ago) and the familiarity with the minds of scientists comes through clearly in this drama – thanks in part to actual transcripts from the real-life characters, nine of whom were known as Hitler’s ‘Uranium Club’. Whilst the development of the atomic bomb, and moreover the atomic age, is well-trodden ground, it nonetheless continues to produce surprising angles and alarming parallels to the modern age. Operation Epsilon is solidly staged and acted, drawing its power from the drama of its source material and connecting its audience with the troubling consequences of human ambition. If you’re looking to see dramatic form transcended, this play may not be top of your list; but for an intriguing look at a less explored aspect of the Second World War, this production is stimulating and moving.

4 stars

Review by Mary Beer

It’s the close of World War II – the dawn of the atomic age.

The Allies have captured Germany’s ten foremost nuclear scientists and sequestered them deep in the English countryside to ascertain the answer to a life-or-death question: how close are the Nazis to making an atomic bomb? The world stands on the precipice of creation and destruction, bound by the gravity of decisions that hold the power to change the course of history.

Based on actual transcripts of secretly recorded conversations – Alan Brody’s gripping play delves into the darkest corners of human ingenuity, exploring the intimate conflict within the hearts and minds of luminaries with unimaginable power. A once-classified true story buried in the archives amidst an epic war, Operation Epsilon is a poignant, thrilling exploration of the ties that bind us to our actions, our decisions, and one another.

Nicholas Armfield
Jamie Bogyo
Simon Bubb
Simon Chandler
Matthew Duckett
Jake Mann
Nathaniel Parker
Peter Prentice
Leighton Pugh
Simon Rhodes
Gyuri Sarossy
Gabriel Freilich

Andy Sandberg DIRECTOR
Janie Howland SET DESIGNER
Ellen Berman and Operation Epsilon Limited PRODUCER

15 SEP – 21 OCT 2023

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  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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