Sunday, 25 January 2015

How To Build A Bomb

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. 


  1. Hi Friko – I have read your last several posts (I had been away from reading blogs for a while.) I always enjoy your witty stories. Am afraid I have not been to a play in a long time. Now I would not go to a Shakespeare play anyway because the English would be too hard to understand and follow, but it’s good that you can go to them since you enjoy them so much. I hope your New Year 2015 will continue to be pretty good. Here, we are back with too many doctor’s visits – my husband cancer returned and he has to have surgery, then he hurt his back so it’s back and forth to therapy sessions – so much time taking care of the old body, don’t you know … Now that I finally wrote my post for January (I am going to write one post a month but if it’s too long I’ll cut it in several parts – smart move to get more posts out of one !!…) Anyway, as usual that one was longer than even my longest ones, so I could cut it into 3. But yours are always short and to the point, and I like them. Keep being happy and continue writing!

  2. Friko, thank you for calling my attention to this play. Perhaps I will someday have the opportunity to see it myself.

    Although I am sure that Oppenheimer is a very different sort of drama, I have to admit that I never quite recovered from seeing the Dr Strangelove film all those years ago. It is good to have our minds shaken and stirred every so often by theater. Of course, daily life can also shake and stir us.


  3. You helped us to feel a bit of the enchantment of theater you were under, F

    ALOHA from Honolulu

  4. I love plays and used to go often when we lived in the least as often as we could afford to. I minored in drama and loved the whole kit and kaboodle from costumes to stage sets to advertising to acting the few little parts I got in college.

  5. Out pulling calves right now ... number 13 is on the ground ... have no idea what is playing in movie theaters and other theaters ... am sleeping 4 hours and on cow watch duty 4 hours and so on ... but ... thought, I'd just say: Hello, Friko :) ... Love, cat.

  6. I so love the theatre, you described the play I do hope to get to see it sometime.


  7. You sound like the ideal play-goer ... the ability to suspend belief is vital .

  8. I saw a documentary on the Manhattan Project...and from your description would love to see the play.
    Rum people they employ in their gift shop....

  9. I know so well the feeling of walking out of a theater (or film) performance and, if it is good, feeling still in the grip of it. It changes what the street looks like, the people walking on it, all of it. Did Oppenheimer's knowledge of John Donne's poetry come up in the play? John Adams composed an opera, Doctor Atomic, on the subject matter you describe relating to the play. While I didn't find the opera wholly successful, it contains a tremendous aria that sets Donne's Batter My Heart. Here it is, if of interest:here, beautifully sung by Gerald Finley.

  10. I'm fascinated with the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and I would certainly love to see this performance. I can see why you were pulled into it the way you were and I love the gift shop story.

    I agree with you about Shakespeare. There are so many ways to interpret it that until you really get the play under your belt, you can't fully comprehend it all Which is why I'm taking a two-session Macbeth class before I see the play this winter! I don't know if you ever have heard of the Canadian mini-series "Slings and Arrows" but I think if you can get your hands on the DVD you would enjoy it. It's set in a repertory theatre where there are multiple stages, one of which is Shakespeare, and of course they have some neurotic characters. But they're great fun. One is Romeo and Juliet, then Macbeth and the King Lear. Delightful.

  11. The magic of the theater should never be ruined. I'm sorry you had to overhear this remark. I am fascinated by theater and really do become absorbed by it all. A few times the magic of it all has been broken for me which distracted me to the point of losing my bearing and not being able to really come back to the fantasy that I was living during and after the performance. Once, a woman became very ill at the back of the audience during a performance of Phantom of the Opera. It was terrible disruptive and confusing.

    I would love to see this play in England. I still carry the memory of King Lear that I saw London over twenty years ago.

  12. Hello,

    You are absolutely right about seeing a play several times in order to translate the layers of meaning. We totally agree with this and just wish that there were more plays worthy of such attention.

    We miss the theatre very much when in Budapest since we are far from being able to decipher what is happening on the stage when the language is Hungarian. However, a recent performance of Equus, a play we know well, had the very effect which you describe here. Letting the language swim over our heads, we were able to concentrate much more in expression, visual clues and the sheer visceral tension of it all. A stunning performance in every sense.......and, no gift shop to break the spell.

  13. ha,ha You walked right into that little joke, eh. I have done that myself and then laughed with the joke player. Sounds like a wonderful play, something I would see, if it were near me - unfortunately in the wilds of Canada that is unlikely. When I lived in London (England) I went to the theatre very often. Now, the funny thing is - Anne Of Green Gables was playing at a theatre in the west end and I managed to get tickets to it. Funny part - Anne Of Green Gables is from my backyard, so to me it was quite exciting to see a play from my backyard home playing in a theatre in England. kinda kool, eh. Have a wonderful day Friko and YES, I do miss going to the theatre.

  14. Good morning Friko! I would be highly interested to see this play someday. Sounds quite intriguing!

  15. This sounds like a really interesting and well done play. I have gone to several Shakespeare plays over the years, and I agree that they only get better with increased attendance. In Boulder where I lived for so long they had a Shakespeare Festival every summer and I could attend one or two each year. You made me smile with your description of the aftermath. :-)

  16. A dismal play I saw several years ago...if it's the one I remember. Living through those days of the Cold War was terrifying. Now with powers in the Mideast bent on making the same chaos, the next generation faces the same experience. Humans are so ignorant.

  17. I'm fascinated by Oppenheimer, and all of the events associated with his life and work. Some of my fascination developed when I was in Berkeley, and frequented a café where I had occasional opportunity to eavesdrop on the guys who worked at Livermore Labs and etc. I've not heard of the play, but it's one I would attend.

    I truly enjoyed the "after story." I'm one of the most gullible in the world, and I'm forever saying, "Really?!?!
    I have friends who'll do it to me just for laughs, generally with the same dead-pan expression on their faces. I always swear it won't happen again, but of course it does.

  18. I can't imagine being in their position...making decisions that could destroy masses. Like playing God. Or should I say, playing Satan. Would be a fascinating play, I'm sure.
    I am used to people rolling their eyes or giggling at my naiveté. I don't take it personally. Give people something to laugh about. Never hurts. ;)

  19. I wonder if they play that joke after every performance.

  20. I think it's funny that you fell for that joke. You truly were caught up in the spirit of the play -- speaks well for the atmosphere created by the performance. You're so fortunate to have the opportunity to see such well-trained actors at Stratford.

    I love the theatre and am an amateur ham beginning with high school, then college and in Little Theatre afterward in city where I moved -- acting, directing, producing. One of my most exciting and rewarding performances was as a character in a theatre-in-the-round production -- the audiences emotions, reactions could be even more closely felt than regular stage. Never performed in Shakespeare but would have enjoyed pursuing that had I chosen an acting career which I considered, but circumstances caused me to pursue a different course ultimately in live television behind the scenes for a few years. Of course, I've read Shakespeare's work and seen some plays, movies. I'll never forget my first exposure in high school when our English teacher took us to the movie to see Lawrence Olivier in "Hamlet." I was mesmerized!

  21. I seem to fall for that kind of thing a lot more than I used to. I guess it's my age slowing down my wit. Or maybe I just have so much going on I'm distracted, as you surely were.

    Sounds like a neat play. I've always been fascinated by the subject.



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