I don’t know much about nuclear fission or the atom bomb other than being terrified that my childhood was going to come to an abrupt end in a mushroom cloud.
Tom Morton-Smith’s new play, Oppenheimer, which opened at The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre last night, gives you a lesson in theoretical physics that you’d rather not have.
It’s impossible not to be moved, shocked and traumatised by every minute of this powerfully told, engrossing drama.
At a tad under three hours long it’s not for the faint-hearted but the time races by as you become absorbed in the passion and fervour of a group of scientists and mathematicians who were determined to create the world’s first atomic bomb.
It starts with an intense and committed J Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb”, coming on stage and addressing the audience as though we were his students attending a lecture.
A blackboard standing behind him, and the floor of the stage, regularly become covered in, what is to me, a collection of squiggles and equations (but might make total sense to any brilliant mathematicians in the audience).
At one point the whole subject matter is boiled down to a single, terrifying, sentence from an excited research boffin.
“How to build an atom bomb? Get two slabs of uranium and slap ’em together. Boom!”
Neither Tom Morton-Smith or director Angus Jackson shy away from blinding us with huge chunks of scientific information.
But what could be a dry, dusty, totally incomprehensible subject, is, instead, transformed into a masterly piece of story-telling.
It’s a fast-paced drama, fuelled by the power, ambition, arrogance and ego of Oppenheimer. It’s not until after a test in the desert of New Mexico, that the full horror of what has been created, begins to hit home.
The war in Europe is almost over by the time the bomb has been perfected but that doesn’t stop the research and development.
The only place left to test the bomb’s capability is Japan.
The driven Oppenheimer begins to doubt his baby but his wife, the frequently drunk and pregnant Kitty (Thomasin Rand), declares: “The man who built the bomb will be hailed a hero.”
But he tells her: “I have it in me to murder every last soul on this planet. Should I not be scared?”
I was terrified. The second Act reawakened all my childhood fears.
A young boy (well done Barney Fitzpatrick) emerges from the casing of a realistic-looking bomb to give a shocking indictment about the human casualties of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
And it’s not until then that any of the characters began to doubt what the top secret Manhatten Project had achieved.
“Can’t we just undo it before it’s used?” asks one.
John Heffernan’s performance in the title role is nothing short of extraordinary.
He gets beneath the skin of a brilliant man who was consumed, single-minded (to the point that he offered to give away one of his children because he couldn’t give it any attention) and dedicated to his work while, it appears, juggling a number of affairs.
William Gaminara plays General Leslie Groves, the man charged with making the Project a reality, and he does it with considerable conviction.
While Ben Allen and Tom McCall as leading physicists Edward Teller and Hans Bethe, offer solid support.
There’s a very real attempt here to put a human face on the men who split the atom and created a chain reaction that had such catastrophic results.
We meet Oppenheimer’s first mistress, the emotionally unstable Jean Tatlock. Catherine Steadman’s fragile Jean flits around the barren stage like a moth and soon burns herself out.
Meanwhile the large ensemble bask in moments where they deliver their own passionate and technical dialogue. Sure, some of it makes no sense whatsoever, but it is, nonetheless, utterly mesmerising to hear (must have been a nightmare to learn).
Oppenheimer is a triumphant and thrilling night of theatre.