BEAUTIFUL SCIENCE. UGLY WORLD
Unexpectedly enthralled, I spent an hour and a half eavesdropping on six nuclear physicists, and couldn’t be more glad to have caught up on this play, now in its last London sellout days. But it moves to Bath and, I suspect, will endure.
To eavesdrop on such scientists obviously brings a frisson of awe and dread: we know that from Frayn’s play Copenhagen, about a 1941 visit by Heisenberg, working on the theory of the atomic bomb, to his friend Mohr in Denmark. Heisenberg is here too in this remarkable debut play by Katherine Moar. It is based on the real transcripts of conversations between him and five others when they were captured – Hitler defeated and dead – and kept guarded in a farmhouse near Cambridge for seven months, while the Pacific war continued. The whole building was bugged: the Allies wanted to know, apart from anything else, how close Germany had got to building the Bomb.
In reality there were ten of them, but in Moar’s deft, skilful shaping we meet only six. It is paced and directed by Stephen Unwin: remember his own play, All Our Children, (https://theatrecat.com/2017/05/09/all-our-children-jermyn-st-theatre/) and note that he has a particularly good eye for the confusions of humans who, on the edges of evil institutions, have to make moral decisions. This is based on real eavesdropping: after seeing it I read sections of the transcripts released decades later , and much is real, including the men’s wondering whether they were bugged and deciding the British were not quite up to Gestapo standard. And they did indeed attempt some am-dram with Coward’s Blithe Spirit, then wowing London, as well as talking technicalities and personalities.
The characters – some previous colleagues, some rivals, with all the small snobberies of high academia – are cast and distinguished meticulously: from the senatorial , decent old Von Laue who had openly objected to Nazism to the youngest, Bagge, from a working-class family who studied under Heisenberg., and was a party member like the pompous, chippy convinced Nazi Diebner. There’s Heisenberg, the eminent scientifically-impassioned Wezsacker, and cheerful Hahn the Nobel laureate who discovered nuclear fission. In short scenes with fragments of Schubert between we get to know their foibles, relationships, homesickness and attempts to live both with boredom and the uncertainty as to whether they’d be killed. One passes the time working out the physics of champagne in zero-gravity; Hahn (Forbes Masson) enthusiastically tinkers with a broken piano and makes Von Laue help. There’s a desultory conversation about a John Wayne film, and a determination to rubbish “American science”.
Hahn, as the original discoverer of nuclear fission and Nobel prizewinner is the most emotionally stricken when, halfway through this remarkable piece, a BBC news bulletin tells them that the Allies have not only built the Bomb but dropped it on Hiroshima. It is a stunning moment, not least because the bulletin blithely speaks of the “Tremendous achievement” of the Allies and Truman’s secret factories, and moves on happily to the weather. The scientists can hardly believe that others triumphed when they did not; the reality dawns only after those incredulous minutes, as Weizsacker starts to imagine the effect: thousands vaporised, the”dirty poison” of radiation spreading miles.
As imagination hardens Hahn cannot bear it, takes the guilt on his own invention. Von Laue tries consolation: they were, were they not, all working towards harnessing this immensity? Or were they? They talk of whether, and where, Hitler would have dropped it: London, Washington, St Petersburg? They wonder what questions will be asked of them, and whether now they will be killed.
Patriotism, competitiveness, shame, immense clouded moral judgements ebb and flow. The shaming of the beauty of science hits them, as do hard truths about the regime they served. Confronted, says Heinsenberg, by “a violent and unpredictable government..” but also an inefficient one, they could not have done it. Weizsacker adds that the best of them were lost abroad anyway – “Who knows what might have happened if our Jewish colleagues had been allowed to stay?”. Bagge, clinging to Nazi faith ever more weakly, protested that Von Braun succeeded without the Jews,, but others say the Fuhrer had a penchant for rockets, and so little understanding that he once asked would an atom bomb be powerful enough to throw a man from his horse?. “It’s a miracle we got as far as we did” says Heisenberg. Weiszacker convinces himself that nuclear power, a wonderful new fuel, was the aim. Not the bomb.
But he knows, and we know, that the cloud of what happened in Japan is upon them, and will never entirely lift.
It is a most remarkable play, troubling .fascinating and memorable . A real coup for the little Jermyn. I am glad it moves on with this remarkably distinctive cast: Archie Backhouse, Daniel Boyd, Alan Cox, Julius d’Silva, Forbes Masson and David Yelland. They are perfect. Get to Bath if you can. Find a way to see it.
jermynstreettheatre.co.uk. to 8 April
Then Theatre Royal Bath