Swan Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Three years ago, Nicholas Kent staged a monumental event around the subject of The Bomb – a series of plays, discussions, debates and film screenings about the creation, proliferation, limitation and present day dangers of the discovery of nuclear fission.

© Keith Pattison

© Keith Pattison

Kent was an extraordinary agent of political provocation and conscience during his memorable time as artistic director of Kilburn’s Tricycle Theatre in north London. Perhaps no one since the heyday of the early RSC – and for a while the Royal Court under Max Stafford Clark – has had such an acute sense of theatre’s capacity for topical comment and the political events of our day.

As he wrote in the vast programme accompanying The Bomb, `I realised that my whole life had been lived in the shadow of the Nuclear Bomb’ – from its dropping on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to the Cuban missile crisis, CND anti-nuclear marches and the present day concerns regarding proliferation in the hands of `rogue’ states.

Many of us could say amen to that. Add to it, too, the various artefacts that have accrued since its creation – operas, film, tv series – and its existence remains omnipresent if blessedly, mostly, to the back of the mind.

© Keith Pattison

© Keith Pattison

Enter Tom Morton-Smith’s Oppenheimer, the product of a workshop offered to writers by the RSC looking at the construction of Shakespearean soliloquies, Greek choruses and writing on a scale large enough to fill RSC theatres. Morton-Smith’s Oppenheimer is therefore conceived on a broad but intimate scale. There are plenty of personal inter-actions but also an attempt to imagine the atmosphere and context within which The Bomb was developed by Oppenheimer, regarded as `the father of the atom bomb’ against a political background of the rise in parallel of communism, then fascism, first in Spain and the Spanish Civil War, then Hitler and Europe.

The race was on, the play strains to tell us, to get there first, before the Nazis. Now this aspect is not a new one. Michael Frayn’s unforgettable Copenhagen (1998) took us to the heart of the same arena with the meeting between mentor and scion, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1941.

Science and physics is unquestionably sexy at the moment. Turing, Hawking – The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything – not to mention the ubiquitous Brian Cox – are everywhere.

So what does Morton-Smith’s Oppenheimer tell us anew?

To be truthful, director Angus Jackson (a notable director of musicals at Chichester) directs with such an eye to razzamataz and sexing up the admittedly dazzlingly complicated elements of nuclear fission you sometimes wonder whether it should be called Oppenheimer – the musical.

Nothing wrong with that as Oh What a Lovely War’s treatment of WW1 amply demonstrates.

But where this particular venture misfires is in its ability to create emotional involvement. And strangely, enough also to fully describe the appeal of communism to which several of physicists, including Oppenheimer, subscribed, at the time.

Everything is skated over, rushed through, even the potentially fascinating and tragic relationship between `Oppie’ and psychiatrist Jean Tatlock who took her own life.

At its core is, of course, Oppenheimer as a character – mercurial, charismatic played with a wonderfully steady focussed attention by John Heffernan whose Edward II at the National two years ago should have taken him to the front rank. He is an actor of intense, quiet inner truth. He doesn’t parade his talent but is very much in the Stephen Dillane school of introspective brilliance – now and again so much so, the voice drops to a husky whisper the meaning of which must have eluded even those sitting in the very closest proximity of the Swan – by far and away the most conducive acting space of recent expensively revamped auditoria for actors and audiences alike.

So we get a gusto-charged singing of the `internationale’, some odd dance routines, mathematical equations strewn in chalk over the floor and a constant sense of thrill appropriate for what must indeed have been an electrically charged atmosphere, a unique gathering of some of the world’s most brilliant physicists clustered together at Los Alamos – a gathering of monumental egos all thrusting for attention, driven by intellectual passion, but torn by varying degrees of political or moral motivation.

Morton-Smith captures this well and to an extent, the sense of responsibility – or lack of it (Oppenheimer’s attitude emerges as deeply equivocal) – such a legacy implied  along with the pressing dilemma at the time as science was subsumed for military purposes but a tension which persists in various forms, scientific and otherwise, to this day: knowledge pursued for its own sake, for the collective good or as the servant of other forces, today largely commercial.

First published  in Londongrip Feb 2015