The Theatreguide.London Review
Vaudeville Theatre Spring 2015
A docudrama about the birth of the atomic bomb, Tom Morton-Smith's play for the Royal Shakespeare Company is very successful as theatricalised history (and physics) lesson, less so as personal drama.
J. Robert Oppenheimer was the Berkeley physics professor who in the early 1940s gathered together a brains trust of physicists to consider the challenge of splitting the atom, with the goal of developing a weapon before the Germans did.
When the American government took over what became the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer was its de facto leader even though they were nominally under military control.
As it turned out, the Germans were far behind the Americans and posed no real threat, and the war in Europe ended before the American bomb was ready. But the Pacific war remained, and so Hiroshima happened, and Oppenheimer and his associates had to live with the complex ramifications of what they had done.
Morton-Smith tells the story with admirable clarity, using a string of classroom, brainstorming and military briefing scenes to explain both the theoretical physics of nuclear fission and the practical challenges of bomb construction, while his narrative and director Angus Jackson's staging move fluidly from scene to scene, always keeping us aware of where we are in the story even as months or years are leapt over.
But Morton-Smith is not satisfied with just a history lesson, and it is in his attempts to flesh out the characters and fill in their personal stories that the play falters.
Oppenheimer and many of the men he worked with had been leftists in the 1930s, some of them card-carrying communists, and this raised security clearance problems and moral dilemmas.
Meanwhile Oppenheimer didn't have the neatest of personal lives, leaving one mistress for a colleague's wife, marrying her but never quite breaking with the first.
Both of these strands, the political and the sexual, are legitimate parts of the story. But Morton-Smith gives them more time than they deserve, and neither he nor his director can keep those scenes from playing like overlong digressions interrupting the story we want to follow.
It is no doubt true, for example, that the first woman was bipolar and suicidal and that the second drank and smoked her way through two unsurprisingly difficult pregnancies, but we don't really need to know that in this play.
Meanwhile, the more of Oppenheimer's associates who undergo moral crises or criticise him for not undergoing moral crises, the harder it becomes to tell them apart, and the less clear that part of his story becomes.
And of course some judicious trimming of the peripheral material could have brought the play in at less than a very long-feeling three hours.
Faced with these obstacles, John Heffernan as Oppenheimer does create a character of some reality and complexity, communicating the man's intellectual depth and moral burdens as much by his slightly stooped posture and his occasionally hesitant absentminded-professor air as by anything he says.
Catherine Steadman and Thomasin Rand as the two women do what they can with the very limited dimensions written for their characters, and William Gaminara is a strong presence as the military commander who knows when to give his mad scientists some slack and when to rein them in.
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