REVIEW: Oppenheimer, Swan Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

The RSC presents Oppenheimer at the Swan Theatre
Photo: Keith Pattison

Swan Theatre
31 January 2015
5 Stars

There is almost nothing as thrilling as sitting in the audience of a production of a new play and realising, quite soon after it has started, that you are witness to the birth of something quite remarkable, theatrically, dramatically and in a true literary sense. Equally, there is almost nothing as thrilling as watching an established, reliable actor give a bravura performance of staggering sweep and depth; one that may well be career defining. The chances of both things happening at the same time must be absurdly improbable, but not impossible: as John Heffernan’s extraordinary performance as the central and titular character in Tom Morton-Smith’s radiant and absorbing new play, Oppenheimer, amply demonstrates.

Now playing at the RSC’s Swan Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon, Oppenheimer, directed superbly by Angus Jackson, is that rare fusion of science, real emotions, human tales of loss, love and tragedy, poetry, politics, military ways and a world-changing event. It concerns the Manhattan Project and Oppenheimer’s race to create the bombs that would end World War II in the Pacific by annihilating Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the programme notes, Morton-Smith says:

Oppenheimer retains something of the mad scientist about him. He is the 20th century’s Victor Frankenstein – a man who pushed science beyond what was natural and brought forth a monster…Robert Oppenheimer, and indeed the entire Manhattan Project…functions as a creation myth for the modern world…the first acts of the Cold War…the seeds of McCarthyism and the anti-Communist hysteria that came to define the 1950s. The surveillance culture…Nuclear power itself has never felt more conspicuous, especially when discussing climate change and any future energy crisis…the lessons from the atom bomb are still there to be learned.

The actions of those people at Los Alamos in the 40s have influenced our politics and our world. Robert Oppenheimer – perhaps more so than even Einstein or Stephen Hawking – has defined the public’s attitude towards scientists in our society. His is an epic story – Shakespearean in its rise and fall…

Brave, bold words. Ones which might trip up a lesser playwright. But not on this occasion.

Oppenheimer is overwhelmingly satisfying theatre. It explains the nuts and bolts of nuclear fission, painstakingly sets out the political backdrop against which the Manhattan Project played out, examines the soul, mind and heart of Robert Oppenheimer and those close to him – and does all this with heart and style. Everyone knows they created the Atom Bomb, yet there is still a thrill attached to every aspect of the journey to the biggest of man-made bangs.

The writing plays with the scientific concepts in involving and illuminating ways. People come together, fuse as units with others circling them; then the units split, the components realign, new groups are formed, some particles are cast aside, some repel others, some attract, new ones adhere to the new groups – these cycles continue, involving powerful, unique components/personalities until there is a final breaking point; a shattering, isolating moment of singularity. And it all moves very quickly, almost faster than the speed of light. But the detail and the sincerity, the crystal clear clarity of the writing and the economy of the dialogue, the poetic nuance of some moments, elevates the whole narrative into a supernova of story-telling.

Morton-Smith does not shy away from Oppenheimer’s defects as a person, emphasising his personal ambition as much as his geeky devotion to Physics, his personal flaws as husband, soldier, manager, friend and brother as much as his intellectual superiority and sense of his own inadequacies. He deftly shows Oppenheimer’s human failures (especially as father to his own children) while highlighting the irony inherent in his eternal status as Father of the Atom Bomb. The complexity of Oppenheimer the man equals, possibly exceeds, the complexity of his mathematical equations.

Angus Jackson’s direction is faultless. The action never flags; characters are quickly and crisply established and then played for all they are worth; tenderness, vitriol, betrayal, love, death, the pain of power – all are essential elements of Jackson’s periodic table for this play. There are great moments of showy staging too – the chalkboard lectures, the scientists scribbling in chalk on the floor, the dances, the moment when the bomb is tested in the desert and the watching scientists are buffeted by the effects and revel in the power of the moment, the glorious, sunshine-like waves that engulf them. And for all the highs, there are quiet moments of spectacular power too, moments when the caustic effects of choices made take their toll.

Every aspect of the design fuses perfectly. Robert Innes Hopkins provides gorgeous period costumes and a simple but resonant set design which, when it comes spectacularly into its own as the bomb is tested in the uninhabited desert, turns out not to be as simple as it seems; the lighting from Paul Anderson is superb, establishing the shadowy worlds that encircle Oppenheimer and reflect his own nature and then, again in the test site scene, demonstrating the godlike power he wielded; Grant Olding provides rich, complex and mood enhancing music, expertly played by the six piece band; the movement choreographed by Scott Ambler is clever and precise, adding to, not detracting from, the overall dramatic effect.

But of all this would be for nothing if the play was miscast. Happily, gloriously, it is not. No one here gives anything other than a first-class performance. John Heffernan, in the central role, with the bulk of the play squarely on his shoulders, is world class. He is magical, mercurial, magnificent.

Oppenheimer is a difficult man to love, yet Heffernan explores every aspect of the man behind the mind, in minute, intricate detail, so that, without every descending to mawkish manipulation, you come to empathise with him. His eyes are remarkable: sparkling with knowledge, twinkling with humour, reflecting rage and disbelief, hollow and haunted by regret and the possibility of failure – the spectrum of total emotional involvement is all-consuming.

Heffernan knows how to use his voice to great effect, and there is real beauty in many of his Oppenheimer speeches. His recollection of adolescent humiliation and ostracisation is painful to experience; his discussion about the adoption of his daughter, frightening, harrowing, yet symbolic of the character’s need to withdraw from normal life to complete his mission; his internal anguish about betraying his friends and those he mentored reflected in the wavering rebellion and then resigned steel in his conversations with the military; the glory of tone as he discusses philosophy or religious parallels, with the blind men and the elephant parable especially impressive, a moment of sheer theatrical perfection that will be long remembered. His final speech, etched in tragedy, regret and fear, is stunning.

What is particularly exciting and insightful about Heffernan’s performance here is that he allows the audience to learn as much about Oppenheimer’s character from how Oppenheimer reacts to his associates, family and friends as they do from how or what he says. Even when silent, Heffernan is beyond expressively eloquent.

The quality and skill of his fellow cast members assists Heffernan at every turn. All are entirely in every moment, consumed with their characters and adding to texture and layers of the narrative. They all help polish Heffernan’s diamond, making it dazzle with undisguised and unhindered brilliance.

But some are truly exceptional.

Jack Holden’s loyal scientist, Wilson, is pitch perfect in every way, every scene, but the moment where he confronts Oppenheimer about the morality of the Manhattan Project after Hitler is dead is raw, desperate and the moral centrepiece of the play. Holden is absolutely outstanding; a star on the rise. Ben Allen is wonderful as the surly super-bright Hungarian, Edward Teller, who dreams of the Hydrogen bomb and wonders if detonating the Atomic bomb will set the Earth’s atmosphere ablaze. Quirky and compelling; totally convincing.

Jamie Wilkes has a splendid cameo as Einstein but his main role, Bob Serber, Oppenheimer’s right hand man, is played with assuredness and passion. His scene with the pilot who will drop the bomb is astonishingly good – jammed with fear and uncertainty in a bravura display of the certainties of science. His description of the effects of the bomb on Japan was chilling, forensic and dispassionate, exactly as would be expected from a scientist; but Wilkes showed the man underneath that too, gently and solemnly. Beautiful work.

Oliver Johnstone makes the teenage genius, Lomanitz, a real treat – and the scene where he returns from the front line and begs Oppenheimer for assistance in securing employment is heart-breaking. William Gaminara is utterly glorious as General Leslie Groves, the military man charged with making the Manhattan Project bear fruit and keeping the physicists in line, protected and productive. Andrew Langtree’s Peer Da Silva provides a good balance to Groves’ somewhat enlightened position, but without making his rigid, conservative army man a caricature. Gaminara’s final speech, about the importance and purpose of military uniforms, could have come across as ideological claptrap but instead illuminates yet another mistaken choice made by Oppenheimer.

Catherine Steadman, erotically charged and fatally damaged, is sensational as Jean Tatlock, the woman who might unravel Oppenheimer’s mind: her final speech, describing her own death, is mesmerising; a masterclass in understated, profund despair. Thomasin Rand shines as Kitty, the woman Oppenheimer takes from her husband just as he will eventually take some of his acolytes from their security in his inner circle and take the lives of hundreds of thousands of Japanese innocents, because he wants to and thinks it is necessary. Rand charts Kitty’s descent into unimaginable pain and solitude with admirable precision.

There is particularly splendid work too from Daniel Boyd, Laura Cubitt, Sandy Foster, Joel Maccormack and Tom McCall; but, in truth, there are no false steps here. This is a young, vital and terrifically talented cast – which bodes well for the next twenty years for the theatre.

Morton-Smith has written a masterpiece which Angus Jackson has cast and directed in a way which gives it full measure, lustre and power. Like Matilda and Wolf Hall/Bring Up The Bodies before it, Oppenheimer should transfer to the West End and then to Broadway. It’s a play for now ostensibly about then – but it’s a play that should be seen and thought about. It has much to offer everyone.

Absolutely unmissable.

Oppenheimer runs at The Swan Theatre in Stratford until 7 March, 2015
Book tickets for Oppenheimer at the RSC

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