John Heffernan as Oppenheimer. Photo:Keith Pattison
Reviewed by James Karas
Tom Morton-Smith has written a very ambitious and engaging play about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the great physicist and one of the main creators of the atomic bomb during World War II. Oppenheimer is now playing at London’s Vaudeville Theatre in a superb production by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Morton-Smith wants to capture the personal story of Oppenheimer, the political milieu of a communist-scared America at war and the work of some of the smartest people on earth on a massive project. It is a great story that is almost impossible to capture in less than three hours on stage but the playwright certainly tries.
The personal story is about a driven genius who must choose between his ambitions as a scientist and his social principles as a human being. As a scientist he must confront the incalculable difficulties of creating an atomic bomb and the fact that he is creating a weapon that can make him a hero but also a destroyer of worlds. He is an unfaithful husband, and must deny or hide his socialist beliefs and betray his friends. It is indeed a complex story.
Morton-Smith brings on a large number of characters who rush on and off the stage. There are parties, gatherings and bar scenes. Complex scientific data about fission, fusion and enriched uranium have to be explained to ordinary people, i.e. us, the audience. These things can get incomprehensible if not boring. Director Angus Jackson tries to solve the problem by making the actors hyperkinetic as if they were jumping up and down in a musical. It works most of the time and the rationale behind the method is understandable.
I found it difficult at times to follow who is who on stage but the main thrust of the story came out quite well. Oppenheimer cavorted with communists and was sympathetic to the Soviets. Even when the U.S. was an ally of the Soviet Union, that type of relationship was frowned upon to put it mildly. Oppenheimer gets the message but finds it impossible to have all his fellow travelers of the past disassociate themselves from leftist causes.
Things are not easier when Oppenheimer has to deal with his personal issues and the egos of military men and other scientists.
It is a riveting story told around the play’s main character. John Heffernan as Oppenheimer is lean, passionate, troubled, full of ambition and gives an outstanding performance. The other actors pale in comparison to him because Morton-Smith spends relatively little time in developing their characters. The ensemble acting under the direction of Jackson is worthy of high praise.
Morton-Smith seems to have run out of steam near the end of the play. The play finishes on a different tone. What looks like a chorus from Greek tragedy appears and a child pops his head up from a model atomic bomb. The little boy gives flash descriptions of what happened in Hiroshima. Oppenheimer becomes reflective and philosophical. He realizes that his great achievement has been to become Death.
The story is history on a grand scale with fundamental issues of morality, science and human behaviour. And it is superb theatre.
Oppenheimer by Tom Morton-Smith continues until May 23, 2015 at the Vaudeville Theatre, Strand, London, England. www.rsc.org.uk