• Drama
  • By Tom Morton-Smith
  • Directed by Angus Jackson
  • Producer: Royal Shakespeare Company
  • Cast includes: John Herrernan, Michael Gradyt-Hall, Hedydd Dylan, Catherine Steadman, Jamie Wilkes, Ben Allen, Andrew Langtree, Ross Armstrong
  • Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
  • Until 7th March 2015
  • Time: 19:30
  • Review by Mel Cooper
  • 1 February 2015
Oppenheimer
5.0Reviewer's Rating

The newly commissioned play, Oppenheimer, by Tom Morton-Smith is a total triumph. Every element meshes beautifully to make a truly gripping, dramatic, thought-provoking and thrilling event. To begin with, Tom Morton-Smith, has given the production the strongest possible foundations in a script that is compellingly intelligent, beautifully constructed, dramatically articulate and deeply theatrical. He has made vivid and real the story of J Robert Oppenheimer and the whole team of extraordinary genius scientists (and their wives, lovers and military keepers) involved in the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb. Without simplifying, the script manages to make totally clear and completely comprehensible the politics, the philosophical implications, the military and political context in which the project developed and the moral issues it raised; all the while also explicating the physics.

The director, Angus Jackson has also forged an ensemble of actors working in complete synchronization throughout in a staging that engages the audience not only with the words of the text but with movement. One of the compelling metaphors for how hard and constantly the scientists grappled with their problems is having the actors fall to the floor from time to time, a floor that is also a blackboard, and scribble their formulae with total concentration. The set, choreography and costume design work as an almost Brechtian conceptualization, placing of the story clearly in its historical period, strongly evoking the era of World War II in America – its music, its outfits, its politics.

The play is remarkable in its ability to evoke the characterizations of the inhabitants of Los Alamos, the sense of the isolated and intense world they were living in; and it interweaves the personal lives and complicated relationships so naturally with the politics and the physics of that strange, dreadful, complex, confused yet heroic time that one gets a strong sense of the pressures, the psychological stresses and the sheer fun that everyone was having. The musicians not only deserves praise for idiomatic playing of the contemporary music but also the actors in the show who play the piano and the bongos, and sing. When the interval comes, get back to your seat in good time because there is quite a pleasant and evocative cabaret act that introduces Act II.

The show is simply superb. And above all, John Heffernan suggests the spirit, the soul, the intelligence and the difficulties of being J Robert Oppenheimer responding to the needs of the military, the political and the personal exigencies of his life; his genius, his detachment, his confusions are all portrayed; and the stature of being the man capable of leading the team to build the bomb faster in a grizzly race with the Germans, a bomb that he hopes will be so frightening that it will put an end to war. It is a play about the sorrow, the pity, the triumph and the tragedy that were all ambiguously interlinked.

The play has many wonderful, memorable moments, not least the two appearances of a bomb in Part Two and the use of everything from bebop dancing to Native American movement and rhythms.  Heffernan’s performance is so staggeringly good that I came away thinking he is going to be an actor very much in the mould of Alec Guinness – a man who can disappear into and become every role he takes on. His body language, his speaking rhythms and tone, his completely non-slip American accent never for a moment allow you to think that you are watching an actor – he simply is J Robert Oppenheimer.

This show is a fine example of what theatre can achieve when it is at its best – entertaining, gripping, provocative and engaging both the emotions and the intellect. I have nothing but praise for this production, this script and this company. I am limited to five stars in my reckoning of its worth; but I would happily give it even more if I could. It deals impressively and lucidly not only with the topic of the building of the bomb but also with the whole political complexity, local and international, that would lead, eventually, to the ghastly episode of McCarthyism in America as well as the Cold War. Above all it makes the characters achingly human and comprehensible and focuses our sympathies on them, so that the audience is dramatically engaged from the opening moment when Oppenheimer comes onto the stage and addresses the audience as if it were a gathering of students at one of his lectures.

I urge you to see Oppenheimer if you possibly can. It’s a complete theatrical triumph.

About The Author

Profile photo of Mel Cooper

Canadian-born Mel Cooper came to the UK to study at Oxford and stayed, captivated by the culture and history of the welcoming and tolerant society of Britain. He founded the magazine Opera Now. He was a consultant to the Japanese broadcaster NHK, a broadcaster on British Satellite Broadcasting and a member of the team that started Classic FM on which he broadcast shows like Classic America and Authentic Performance. After working with the Genesis Foundation on helping to fund arts projects, he continues to write, review and lecture on music and literature.

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