The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 2nd February, 2015
Tom Morton-Smith’s blinding new play at the RSC is a potted biography of the Daddy of the Bomb, J Robert Oppenheimer, covering the years leading up to and during the Second World War, and the deployment of the first two WMDs in Japan.
In a charismatic central performance as the titular character also known as ‘Oppy’, John Heffernan displays the man’s arrogance and dry humour and above all his drive to succeed in the execution of his terrible task. Oppy remains convinced throughout that his discovery saved countless lives, while the weight of all the lives lost finally crushes him.
Morton-Smith’s script doesn’t dwell on the horror – we get flashes, single images that sear our imagination far more effectively than lists of large numbers; indeed, one of the characters observes one death is a tragedy while 300,000 is a statistic.
There is physics. Plenty of physics. The characters rattle off the argot and drop to the floor, chalking and scribbling like children in a playground: theoretical science was in its infancy back then. Their equations and formulae soon, with the amount of foot traffic on the stage, become as smudged and nebulous as my understanding. But it’s OK, you don’t need to be Professor Brian Cox to follow the action, which is more of a history lesson than a lecture in theoretical physics.
Director Angus Jackson keeps things moving at quite a lick, so that when moments of stillness come or blazing rows erupt, they are all the sharper. One moment jars: when we get sight of the first bomb, being hoist above the stage, everyone starts to dance in a sort of primal worship beneath what looks like a deep sea diver’s disco ball. However when we see Little Boy, a malevolent presence like a giant, bulbous wasp, that’s a different matter.
The electrifying John Heffernan is supported by an excellent ensemble, conjuring the feel of place and period apparently effortlessly. Catherine Steadman is striking as Oppy’s idealistic mistress Jean – her fate symbolises and foretells the end of the socialist movement in the USA. Ben Allen is powerful as the embittered Hungarian professor Edward Teller, and the marvellous Jack Holden shines as young boffin Robert Wilson, clinging desperately and naively to his ideals. Sandy Foster brings somewhat Maureen-Lipmanesque humour to her role as Charlotte Serber but really, each and every cast member deserves a mention, had I the time and space for it.
From physics and history we move toward philosophy. The implications of the Bomb have affected us all for 70 years. There’s no going back in the bottle for this particular genie and it is fascinating to consider the effects on the man who took out the cork. Oppy wins everlasting fame at the most terrible cost.
After one final impassioned outburst, Heffernan delivers the famous quotation with tempered resignation. “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds” – and it is devastating.