Tom McCall as Hans Bethe, John Heffernan as J Robert Oppenheimer and Ben Allen as Edward Teller in Oppenheimer. Photo by Keith Pattison
From The RSC Production
Seeing the same play many times is like re-reading a favourite book: there is always something you missed before; with Shakespeare’s plays I would go so far as to say you must see them as often as they come back to a stage near you. It will take several productions before you can stop concentrating on every word - and so miss the performance. Only when you know what comes next will you appreciate the depth, colour, drama, the layers of humour and tragedy, the sheer genius of the works, whether written by one man or several.
But sometimes the first performance of a play is all you need to get goosebumps. It happened to me yesterday with a brand new play by a relatively unknown dramatist called Tom Morton-Smith, namely, “Oppenheimer.”
1939: fascism spreads across Europe, Franco marches on Barcelona and two German chemists discover the processes of atomic fission. In Berkeley, California, theoretical physicists recognise the horrendous potential of this new science: a weapon that draws its power from the very building blocks of the universe. The ambitious and charismatic J Robert Oppenheimer finds himself uniquely placed to spearhead the largest scientific undertaking in all of human history.
Struggling to cast off his radical past and thrust into a position of power and authority, Oppenheimer races to win the 'battle of the laboratories' and create a weapon so devastating that, with the detonation of a single device, it would bring about an end not just to the Second World War but to all war.
As the political situation darkens, Tom Morton-Smith's new play takes us into the heart of the Manhattan Project and explores the tension between the scientific advances that will shape our understanding of the fabric of the universe, and the justification of their use during wartime, revealing the personal cost of making history.
The play left the four of us rather subdued and in need of a fortifying cup of tea before tackling the long journey home from Stratford-upon-Avon back to Shropshire. To break the spell I decided to pop into the theatre shop for some cards. The merchandise at the RSC gift shop is undoubtedly overpriced but tasteful rather than tacky, as in so many other gift shops where a bit of additional cash is raised for an attraction.
As I took my purchases to the cash till I overheard one of the assistants say to the other : “Is Oppenheimer out yet?” Being a helpful sort of person I butted in and said “ O yes, quite a while ago.” Whereupon the second assistant said, deadpan and with no discernible trace of irony in her voice or facial expression: “Good, they’ll have had time to build another bomb then.”
Reader, I fell for it. Blame the play and my continued preoccupation with it or blame my natural slow wittedness. All excited and breathless I said : O, do they build a new bomb for each performance?” (a large bomb-shaped object is suspended from girders and slowly appears above the stage in the final part of the play, culminating in darkness and the noise of an almighty explosion)
“O yes,” the assistant said, “of course they do.” She kept her eyes firmly lowered, it doesn’t do to make fun of the paying customer too obviously.
I felt a 'proper Charlie’ but when I stopped being embarrassed the spell the play had cast over me was broken. Which was not a bad thing.