Your principles? Your friends? Control over your own ideas? The lives of around 200,000 people?
So asks Oppenheimer, Tom Morton-Smith’s important, frenetic and dizzyingly intelligent new play telling the story of how a small group of bafflingly bright physicists pooled their knowledge to create one of the most exciting scientific breakthroughs of the twentieth century. That that breakthrough was the most deadly weapon ever conceived of is, well, unfortunate.
Yes, I am describing The Manhattan Project ie. the building of the world’s first nuclear bomb. No, this is not exactly a story that’s never been told (although it’s not the story told in the film The Manhattan Project, weirdly). But where Oppenheimer sets itself apart from many other retellings of this story is in choosing to focus on the titular character himself and the web of complicated and ever changing personal relationships surrounding him.
John Heffernan is magnetic in the demanding title role - another to add to my collection of outstanding male performances I've seen this year, a large collection at this point. Oppenheimer is a mercurial character who gets increasingly less sympathetic as he casts off his beliefs, his friends and his family in a relentless pursuit to make sure his name goes down in history as the man who ends war. The transformation from avuncular academic to slightly crazed military man is stark; the scene towards the end of Act 2 where he refuses to give a reference to a former student on the grounds of his communist sympathies, sympathies that Oppenheimer himself not only held but instilled in his students, is particularly repulsive. In a dexterous and passionate performance, Heffernan stops Oppenheimer becoming a villain, though. He is utterly convincing on every step of the journey from principles and dazzling intellect to ruthless ambition and a desperate quest for glory.
Despite an excellent supporting cast, the other major star of this production is the staging. Directed with exquisitely judged pace, zipping through its three hour run time but with space for the emotional moments to breathe too, the production leaps off the stage thanks in large part to its innovative design. Veteran theatre designer Robert Innes Hopkins covers the stage and walls in blackboard paint which is itself covered in the scrawls of a cast of frantic academics as the drama progresses. The black stage is also used as a screen for the projections of diagrams that the production cleverly uses to explain some of the more complicated science (the fact that the play takes the form of lectures when these issues need to be explained properly is also really effective - and not half as disruptive to the narrative as it probably sounds). Combined with Paul Anderson’s clever lighting, including raising the house lights at key points to make the audience complicit in the action and a frightening prolonged period of intense darkness when the test bomb is detonated, the effect is of a story plunging forward; progress both inevitable and vital. And always asking the question ‘what would you do if you had this knowledge?’
Given its polarising subject matter - I mean how many people have you met that are neutral on the issue of nuclear weapons? - I also found it refreshing that the play doesn't have an opinion of its own. Oppenheimer is neither hero nor villain, nor are his co-scientists, nor the military they work for. Instead, the play confines itself to examining the characters involved and presenting a study of power: how it’s got, what effect it has on those who have it and where it really resides. And it is strikingly good at this, weaving these ideas into the plot in every moment from the big and obvious (Oppenheimer’s relationship with his military superior) and the small and fleeting (the fact that the one female scientist on the team isn't allowed to attend the test launch).
Oppenheimer does much to bolster the RSC’s reputation as an incubator for new British work and, whether viewed through in this way or on its own, is well worth your time and money. It’s not around for long though so best get your (nuclear powered?) skates on.
Oppenheimer is at the Vaudeville Theatre until 23rd May.