Stratford Upon Avon
OPPENHEIMER: Tom Morton-Smith
RSC, The Swan, Stratford Upon Avon
Runs: 3 hours, one interval, to 7 March 2015
Review: Alexander Ray Edser, 24 01 15
Impressive in all directions.
OPPENHEIMER is a huge and hugely complex play. With consummate ease, in a series of mostly short and deceptively simple looking scenes, Tom Morton-Smith lays open, with forensic skills, the moral dilemmas surround the invention, building and use of the first atomic bomb.
The controversy around the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is nicely summed up in one of Oppenheimer’s final lines; ‘I’ve saved thousands of lives’ he tell us – then qualifies his remark, adding ‘American lives.’
The creation of these first atomic bombs was earth-shattering, but did Oppenheimer merely speed up what was inevitable? And it has to be acknowledged that the existence of these weapons has forced powers to pull back from war – or is this, in fact, a false premise?
These are the questions Morton-Smith’s play examines, But intriguingly the debate is carried by the personal stories of the people involved.
We see Oppenheimer involved in two marriages; marriages difficult in part because of his ‘iron core’. We see Oppenheimer, a liberal thinker fighting fascism but in doing so increasingly drawn into a Right-wing witch-hunt against the Left. He sacrifices friends and beliefs to achieve his goal and more, to become a man of influence. And yet the respect he believes he deserves eludes him after the war.
No wonder, then, that Morton-Smith’s play runs three hours – but truly never a dull moment. (Thank goodness someone is prepared to buck the trend towards shorter and shorter works.)
John Heffernan creates a beautifully understated performance that works incredibly well in the Swan. His moments of passion or enthusiasm are electric. Yet we never lose sight of the sacrifices he knowingly makes. While the sacrifices give him growing stature, they diminish him.
The playwright employs theatrical techniques and devices aplenty – the popular culture elements are particularly effective. Yet each section adds its own power and they merge into a satisfying whole. Much credit for this must go to director Angus Jackson, who misses no detail but ensures the whole flows along. And the plays’ rhythms would all be lost if it weren’t for Robert Innes Hopkins’ sympathetic and telling designs.
Ben Allen: Edward Teller
Ross Armstrong: Haakon Chevalier / Richard Feynman
Daniel Boyd: Joe Weinberg ? Paul Tibbets
Vincent Carmichael: Kenneth Nichols
Laura Cubitt: Ruth Tolman
Hedydd Dylan: Jackie Oppenheimer
Sandy Foster: Charlotte Server
William Gaminara: Leslie Groves
Michael Grady-Hall: Frank Oppenheimer
John Heffernan: Robert J Oppenheimer
Jack Holden: Robert Wilson
Oliver Johnstone: Giovanni Rossi
Andrew Langtree: Peer Da Silva
Joel MacCormack: Richard Harrison / Klaus Fuchs
Tom McCall: Hans Bethe
Josh O’Connor: Doctor / Luts Alvarez
Thomasin Rand: Kitty Puening
Catherine Steadman: Jean Tatlock
Jamie Wilkes: Bob Serber / Albert Einstein
Fred Barry / Barney FitzPatrick / Christopher Kingdom: Little Boy
Writer – Tom Morton-Smith
Director – Angus Jackson
Designer – Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting – Paul Anderson
Music – Grant Olding
Sound – Christopher Shutt
Movement – Scott Ambler