The wonder and horror of mankind’s journey to a brave new world of potential total annihilation is fascinatingly explored by the RSC in their gripping production of Tom Morton-Smith’s new play about the father of the atomic bomb, Oppenheimer, first staged in Stratford and now at the Vaudeville Theatre.
It is 1939 and as fascism spreads across Europe, Francs marches on Barcelona and two German chemists discover the processes of the horrendous potential of this new science: a weapon that draws the power from the very building blocks of the universe. The ambitious and charismatic J. Robert Oppenheimer finds himself uniquely placed to spearhead the largest scientific undertaking in all of human history – known as the Manhattan Project. Determined to cast off his radical past and struggling with tempestuous relationships with his colleagues, wife and mistress, Oppenheimer finds himself thrust into a position of power and authority, racing to create a weapon so devastating that it would bring an end not just to the Second World War but to all war.
This ambitious attempt to encapsulate a complex scientific and historical chapter and the contradictions of its protagonist delivers an engrossing spectacle of brilliant minds at work during a time of unprecedented darkness. If some of the characterisation is sketchy and elusive the play’s nucleus is full of illuminating insights into human nature and bristling with ideas. This is essentially a portrait of a man who risked becoming split in two himself. His allegiance to Communist ideals and his friends was tested to the limit by his adherence to patriotic values which entailed taking sides in the battle between the military and scientific priorities and finally he is unclear whether he has created something beneficial to mankind or a future nightmare beyond measure. “I feel I’ve left a loaded gun in a playground” he observes ruefully.
Director Angus Jackson keeps the story moving at a brisk pace, with the changes in mood cleverly orchestrated. One minute we’re watching a party in full jazzy swing at Oppenheimer’s residence in Berkeley – a fundraiser in the fight against Franco – the next everyone in the room hurl themselves down and start feverishly chalking complex equations on the floor as we are now in the theoretical physics department, reverberating with shock and awe at news of German success with uranium fission. Horror is vividly conveyed in the second half when a young boy emerges from the casing of realistic-looking bomb to give a shocking indictment about the human casualties of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The play is impeccably performed by a cast of 20 actors. John Heffernan is outstanding as Oppenheimer, getting totally beneath the skin of the man, conveying both an unspoken, desperate tenderness and suppressed horror at the monster he has unleashed. Thomsin Rand impresses as Kitty, his frequently drunk and pregnant wife and Catherine Steadman is excellent as hi emotionally unstable mistress, Jean Tatlock. William Gaminara as General Leslie Groves, the man charged with creating the Manhattan Project and Ben Allen and Tom McCall as leading physicists Edward Teller and Hans Bethe offer solid support!
Certainly a production which leave you both shaken and stirred!
Runs at the Vaudeville Theatre until Saturday 23 May
Box office: 0844 482 9675Last modified: June 9, 2021