How do we depict the past? One way is to travel along the byways of hindsight, to remember with knowing sobriety the magnitude of some event and then sift through the circumstances that led up to it.
The danger of hindsight is that it can so easily lead to a patronizing perspective, to judge the past by its moral acceptability. It is easy to wag one’s finger and roll one’s eyes, and say “how could you?”.
This might very well have happened in Tom Morton-Smith’s new play, Oppenheimer, which is showing at the RSC’s Swan Theatre from 15th January to 7th March 2015, before transferring to the Vaudeville Theatre, London for an 8 week run. The play explores physicist Robert Oppenheimer’s leadership of the Manhattan Project, which secretly developed the nuclear weapons that were dropped on Japan in August 1945.
The explicit theme of Morton-Smith’s play ask us to consider the onward march of science, namely that if science makes the most fantastical ideas seem imminently possible, does it also make them inevitable?
The momentum of historical circumstances, especially seen in the rear-view mirror, may suggest that fate was already sealed. With the rise of fascism in Europe during the 1930s, and the implication that the Nazis could develop extremely powerful weapons after having split the atom, President Roosevelt established the Manhattan Project in 1941. Robert Oppenheimer was appointed it’s director and set up a new research station at Los Alamos, New Mexico.
But there is, or course, the human element. How responsible should we hold Oppenheimer and his fellow scientists for the development of the most destructive weapon ever invented?
The strength of this play is it’s refusal to take a judgemental position. When seen through the viewfinder of hindsight, a story like this can gain mighty resonance. Since we already know the ending, we can discern the plotting all the more readily. We know where those thoughts and those ambitions will lead, even (or especially) when the characters themselves do not. Yet Morton-Smith, Angus Jackson (director) and the excellent cast, manage to keep us guessing. The staging is a characterised by a constant procession of scene-swapping, giving the play a brisk, excitable air. The floor of the entire stage is a blackboard, upon which equations are chalked throughout the duration of the play. In some of the most successful passages, the stage is transformed into a lecture hall – a free-standing blackboard is whisked on and the players address the audience directly. The ensuing lesson is bombastic and played with great animation, enforcing the idea that the characters are most at home when pure physics is the topic at hand. I enjoyed these sections the most, when a palpable sense of energy emanates from the young theoretical physicists who interchange, line by line, to deliver an ever more crucial finding in the infant science. The overall effect is a play that simmers at a high heat from start to finish, never hitting a complacent note or settling on an easy assumption.
Realism is approached through the dress and accents, which are authentic and broad approximations of 1930s America. Some of the truisms are forgivable – the jazz party at the start of the play is less imaginative. Yet overall the action is fresh. The Oppenheimer presented here is not untouched by imagination, nor unmoved by wit and emotion. John Heffernan is persuasively enigmatic in the role. From the opening scene, when he addresses the audience promising that whilst he can make atomic physics clearer he can not make it more simple, the acting is wry and precise. Heffernan also has the ability to slow the action down, inserting pauses and silences into scenes that are otherwise hectic with dialogue. This has the effect of de-cluttering the stage, but also on occasion to disrupt the rhythmic pace of the action. Nonetheless, he delivers a potent performance that holds the attention.
The play succeeds because it does not try to flatter us into thinking we know the future any better than the characters depicted. If we seize the past in order to bolster our contemporary perspective, this play shows that the subtly of our approach is a recognition of our shared humanity.