Farm Hall

Reviewer's rating

I saw Katherine Moar’s excellent debut play, Farm Hall, when this touring production reached Oxford. It’s inspired by the true story of six German physicists who were held in a Cambridgeshire stately (but rather dilapidated) home at the end of World War II. By then Hitler had been defeated but the war in the Pacific was still raging. The powers that held them surreptitiously recorded everything they said over about seven months and it would seem that this play’s not only influenced by the true tale of what happened that summer of 1945 but also recreates some of the things these men actually said.

The first part of the play sets up the situation and introduces us to the different roles they played for Germany. The set of the sitting room in which everything happens is an evocative design by Ceci Calf and redolent not only of the time of the story but also of the kind of well-made play that this is. The direction by Stephen Unwin is suitably droll, tight and economical.

We are observing a  team of men who ran the attempt to create the first atomic bomb so that Hitler would definitively win the war. The play begins simply with them killing time and fighting the boredom of their capitvity. They are even reading to each other from a script of Noel Coward’s play Blithe Spirit – an apt metaphor for the ghosts that will haunt them. With humour and misdirection we learn that Heisenberg (Alan Cox) is a kind of leader of this group, that Weizsaecker (Daniel Boyd) got his appointment because he has strong family link to the Third Reich, that Bagge (appealingly performed by George Jones) is a Nazi Party member but feels some guilt about his having joined the party for the sake of promoting his career. Von Laue (William Cubb) emerges as a careful objector to the regime and its atrocities while Hahn (a strong Forbes Masson) is morally disturbed, fighting with himself, half proud and half guilty, over having discovered nuclear fission. Julius D’Silva meanwhile embodies the character of Diebner and his unstinting, unashamed lack of guilt at having supported the project and the Nazi party. The play is a study in understanding the moral pressures as well as the ambiguities of ambition under and support for an evil regime.

Part way through the evening, these men learn that America has dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.  They are given a radio and we too hear what I take to be the words of the actual BBC news broadcast announcing dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

At first, before hearing the broadcast, our German scientists are incredulous. How could American scientists beat German  scientists? This makes the play a companion piece, in its way, to the film Oppenheimer which itself dramatizes the fear that Germany will develop an atomic bomb and the overriding need, therefore, for the Allies to get there first. One of the points that emerges is the German scientists complaining that Hitler split his teams and created rivalries, undermining the work.

The second half of the evening builds in intensity. The moral ambiguity of creating such a bomb is examined. The various motives – ambition, a simple need for a job and money, wishing to please Hitler – are explored and finally there is special emphasis on two specific things: Hahn’s guilt over his scientific discovery; and the role of Heisenberg in possibly causing delays as a resistance to Hitler and his regime and an expression of his knowledge that, in a morally ambivalent situation, it would be less awful for the world if the Americans to achieved the bomb first. We are left with puzzles and moral issues that can never be solved but must be thought about.