Theater Review: Oppenheimer, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

The Royal Shakespeare Company is currently showing Oppenheimer, a new play by Tom Morton-Smith about Robert Oppenheimer, the man who led the Manhattan Project. Directed by Angus Jackson, this play, in the smaller Swan Theatre, looks at Oppenheimer’s life from before World War II, when he was a fellow traveller of the Communist Party, to the time just after the two bombs were dropped in Japan.

There’s a lot to tell in this play, which stretches on for a long two hours and forty minutes (with a twenty-minute intermission). The early part of the play, and a number of later scenes, serve as didactic exposition, telling the audience about nuclear physics, and how they are attempting to build the bomb. These scenes are well done, and don’t feel like information dumps.

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The dialog is natural – though I was surprised that the cast all spoke with American accents – and the play is well-paced. But it essentially tells the story of what they did to organize and build the bomb. I wanted more; I wanted more about the characters, about what they were experiencing.

There are a few scenes where Oppenheimer and others speculate on the fact that the atomic bomb could end all wars, but there is little discussion of the moral issues of the bomb. Naturally, since this was during World War II, the people of the time wouldn’t have the same thoughts that we do, looking back 70 years later, but it is 70 years later, and it felt that this element of the play was lacking.

I wanted more about their feelings, about the difficulty of working isolated in the desert for a long period of time. Sure, there was a bit of emotional intrigue, with Oppenheimer not being a one-woman man, and one of his lovers committing suicide. But, again, most of the play was simply telling what they did.

Aside from Oppenheimer – brilliantly played by John Heffernan – all the other characters felt simply like stand-ins. While the acting was excellent, across the board none of the other characters stood out as characters. They were all free electrons revolving around Oppenheimer, without much identity of their own. There is a large cast, nineteen in all, coming and going in mostly short scenes. Because of this, none of the other characters – except, perhaps, for Oppenheimer’s wife and lover – get enough time to stand out.

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As usual at the RSC, the set was minimal. The stage was cleverly covered with slate tiles, which served as a blackboard as characters wrote equations with chalk. But those equations; they were all just filler. It’s a standard trope to see mathematicians and physicists writing on blackboards, but we never have any idea what it means. There was no attempt here to elucidate any equations.

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There was some interesting lighting, used to project models of atoms, shapes of bomb designs and more. But there was an unfortunate scene, very much unlike the rest of the tone of the play, depicting the first atomic test. During this scene, a huge bomb came out along one of two girders that stretched from the back of the stage to the other end of the theater. It started flashing lights, and the cast started doing a strange dance, one that seemed to have come from a different play.

There was a very good mise-en-époque, as the characters often moved around smoking and drinking, with music from the period, and even a nightclub singer with a pianist on stage during the intermission. The costumes and hairstyles all set the tone of the 1930s and 1940s.

The play seemed to be about a half-hour too long, and it finally wrapped up with Oppenheimer recalling the well-known words that he said after the first atomic bomb test. Quoting the Bhagavad Gita, Oppenheimer said, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

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I feel that Morton-Smith missed an opportunity. He could have explored not what they did but how they felt about it. He could have given the play more of a moral tone, rather than just depicting history. Nevertheless, it was an interesting play, and John Heffernan, as Oppenheimer, was an amazing presence on stage.

Photos: Keith Pattison for the RSC.

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