THE BIRTH OF THE BOMB
This is what the RSC is for. Not mere Bardolatry, but to bring new work illuminated by the craft, humanity and wisdom which comes to those steeped in Shakespeare. We have felt heart-jerking moments in this theatre, when past crises are shaken into present life: Written on the Heart, Wolf Hall, The Orphan of Zhao, A Soldier in Every Son, The Heresy of Love. But rarely has it struck home as hard as in Tom Morton-Smith’s stunning presentation of J.Robert Oppenheimer , leader of the “Manhattan Project” which in 1945 gave birth to the Bomb and death to millions.
Steeped in irony and sincerity, it is a thing of tremendous speeches, dazzling metaphor and heartfelt engagement. It is directed, fast and featly, by Angus Jackson in a bare space beneath great girders: the floor is a vast blackboard on which formulae are scribbled in manic creativity or appear lit suddenly from above; it conjures classrooms, the secret desert lab city of Los Alamos, domestic interiors, and finally the fearful inevitability when formulae became solid, incredible bombs.
Oppenheimer is John Heffernan in the performance of his career: riveting, truthful, complex, sinking deep into himself or flashing sudden charm. Here’s a brilliant physicist forced by circumstance and ambition to becomes a leader in the technical war, a “a skinny intellectual elitist New York Jew with chest problems and sciatica” happily surrounded by communist party friends passionately fundraising against Fascism in 1930’s Spain. Then a man forced to step aside from “doobious associates” , shadowed by the FBI, too vital to sack but never trusted; the reader of Hindu scriptures who finally describes himself with loathing “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. Skinny, pale, steely, decent, conflicted, aware of having “left a loaded gun in a playground” for political thugs, real tears touch his face in the final scenes.
They touch ours too. The last sections are stunning, not least when the new-fledged bomb is dispatched, the pilot briefed, and from its casing a small boy rises and – with studied dispassionate care – explains its effects.
Despite the fascination of Heffernan himself, the ensemble is core to the play’s strength. Fellow-scientists explain and scribble and offer glorious metaphors of the power of the split atom – “a cloud of tethered energy…a pack of wolves in a broom-cupboard”. They emerge as distinct characters: Jamie Wilkes the bespectacled keen Serber, heading out for Japan with his pet bomb horribly named Little Boy “to hold his hand, see him off”. He cracks later into realization. OR the Europeans Lomanitz, Bethe and Teller, the latter petulantly outraged at the loss of scientific “beauty and elegance” in the dormitory life and dull graft of getting the first-generation bomb ready before Hitler could get his.
There is genuine, inescapable comedy in the human interactions, not least the sometimes tense, sometimes ludicrous relationships with the military overseers. William Gaminara gives General Groves a dignified pragmatism but Andrew Langtree demonstrates a lovely, crewcut Captain’s indignation at the tieless unpolished scientists who dare to perch on his desk while talking to him. In Oppenheimer’s agonized withdrawal after Nagasaki, though, it is Groves who urges the scientist’s wife to remember the point of uniform: ““It helps to make that distinction between an act of war and an act of….the burden is not his alone and never will be”. The women too – Catherine Steadman as the lively, idealistic, doomed first lover and Thomasin Rand as Oppie’s wife Kitty – are pivotal in the hero’s emotional story . They also – with Laura Cubitt and Sandy Foster – subtly remind us that even within the laboratory fastness of Los Alamos this was civilian 1940’s America: its own life not threatened, the complexities of distant Europe a matter for argument not terror.
A stunning play, tribute and warning about the “ambivalence – pride and horror” of harnessing the atom, bringing a star’s violent energy to the earth’s surface. As Frank Oppenheimer heard his brother mutter it the desert test “Lord, these affairs are hard on the heart”.
Superb , serious, humane, riveting, honourable. It must have an afterlife.
box office 0844 800 1110 to 7 March.