Theatre review: Oppenheimer play is an explosive hit

On the whole, Morton-Smith’s operatic vision is executed faultlessly

Vaudeville Theatre | ★★★★★

Tom Morton-Smith’s brilliant new play for the RSC begins at a smoke-filled fundraiser for the anti-fascist forces fighting Franco in far away Spain. Jazz is playing, and everyone dances – everyone except for Robert Oppenheimer (John Heffernan pictured above), who stands at the centre of things, martini in hand, smiling. In this group of interwar clever-clogs he is the nucleus: lovers and acolytes whizz around him like electrons kept stable by his magnetism.
Though most of Oppenheimer’s social group are scientists, they’re also united by an interest in radical left wing politics. With fascism threatening to engulf Europe, the development of the atom bomb acquires a race-like urgency: who’s going to get there first, the Allies or the Nazis?
A pivotal moment comes when Oppenheimer’s research is commandeered by the US Army. His team are relocated to a purpose-built Lab in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where they’re given uniforms and are officially inducted into the military. As they’re drawn further into the war effort Oppenheimer clashes with some of his more politically inclined colleagues: some of them think he should share the secrets of his weapon with the Russians, and the army lean heavily on him to inform on the communist sympathisers.
This troubles him, but not as much as the weapon he’s been busily creating. Estimates of the combined total of deaths from Hiroshima and Nagasaki range from 150,000 to 300,000: it’s a lot to carry on your conscience, even if you’re pretty sure that overall, you’ll save more than you’ll kill. It plays on Oppenheimer’s mind as the play progresses. In the first half he’s good humoured and righteous, enthralled by the science of his project; in the second, his movement slows and he becomes taciturn, introspective, as if weighed down by the gargantuan horror he iis about to unleash. A magisterial Heffernan carries off the transition with pizzazz and then pathos.
There is much to contend with in this three hour play. It doesn't shy away from the science – the stage is set like a giant blackboard upon which equations and formulae are frequently written and projected – and it’s testament to Morton-Smith’s writing that you come away feeling a little bit more knowledgeable, rather than a little bit more confused, about nuclear physics. Some experimental flourishes don’t quite work; the decision to personify Little Boy, the bomb that fell on Hiroshima, as an actual little boy was a mistake. When it fails, it’s because of an over-spill of ambition. On the whole, Morton-Smith’s operatic vision is executed faultlessly: ingeniously conceived and well performed, fizzily written yet heavy-weight – Oppenheimer is a nuclear success.

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