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The atomic bomb on stage

Robert Butler on a new play about Oppenheimer

Robert Butler | January 23rd 2015

When the atom bomb eventually goes off in Tom Morton-Smith's new play, “Oppenheimer”—which opened at Stratford’s Swan Theatre last night—it’s followed by drunken celebrations. We’re in the desert in New Mexico, where a bunch of physicists are lying in the sand wearing army uniforms and black goggles. The explosion itself is a blackout and a slow deep rumble, but the lights swiftly come up on frenetic dancing at a party. Soon after, we hear an appalling description of what happens when the detonation is repeated over the city of Hiroshima. If the play veers unpredictably in tone in the summer of 1945, losing its earlier assurance, that is no surprise: there can be few bigger challenges, in terms of dramaturgy, than introducing a weapon that kills over 100,000 people.

Till then, the chief pleasure of “Oppenheimer” is the jaunty culture clash between a marvellously eclectic team of theoretical physicists in double-breasted jackets and sleeveless cardigans and the literally-more-uniform US military. They have come together at Los Alamos, the converted boys’ school near Santa Fe, which becomes the Allied centre for “the war of the laboratories”. One army officer cannot believe that a physicist sits on his desk. Nor does he find it fitting that a war should be won by people who make chalk marks on blackboards and put olives in martinis. The physicists aren’t happy either, when the science turns political and secretive. Edward Teller, later to be the model for Dr Strangelove, complains with rich Hungarian testiness: “There is no beauty or elegance in these equations”.

Morton-Smith’s highly engaging play follows J. Robert Oppenheimer from the late-Thirties—when he’s professor of physics at Berkeley—through to the planning and execution of the Manhattan Project. On that journey he has to distance himself from his communist colleagues, with whom he used to attend fundraisers for the Spanish civil war, either by insisting they muffle their opinions, or by not employing them or recommending their employment. His love life is a tragic tangle too.

Along the way, Morton-Smith has quite a syllabus to sketch in: from theoretical physics (“There are 92 protons in the nucleus of a uranium atom”) to 1940s history (“Now the Russians have joined the war”). The Swan’s thrust stage suits his catch-all approach. Direct address, anecdote and monologue, drawing on vaudeville and the illustrated lecture, sit alongside big emotional set-pieces. This variety gives the director Angus Jackson scope for encouraging ebullient and sharply etched performances from Jamie Wilkes, Jack Holden and Tom McCall as fellow physicists and William Gaminara as the astute Leslie Groves, the general who hires Oppenheimer because he knows “Oppie” never won the Nobel prize, and still has something to prove. As Oppie—inspiring, complex, flawed—John Heffernan builds a commanding performance through polarities. He has watery eyes, an anxious smile and a languid stance, but he's arrogant, stubborn, self-interested and reckless.

Many playwrights, librettists and screenwriters, including Arthur Miller, Peter Sellars and Bruce Robinson, have seen the dramatic potential of Oppenheimer’s life. Morton-Smith embraces a great many of the themes (though the play ends before the McCarthy era) and it’s the scale of the enterprise that undoes it. As we move from the anguish of a busy father not feeling that he has bonded with his baby daughter to the anguish of “the father of the bomb” knowing he has changed the future of the human race, the moral complexities multiply and blur. One wishes Morton-Smith had absorbed more of Oppenheimer’s ruthless, single-minded vision.

Oppenheimer Swan Theatre, Stratford, to March 7th

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