ARTHUR Miller once visited Robert Oppenheimer when looking to write a play about the men who built the atomic bomb. The great American playwright became frustrated when he started to write, unable to pin down his subject, and abandoned his efforts after struggling through a few scenes.
Fast forward, and where Miller drew a blank, writer Tom Morton-Smith succeeds in presenting the complex character of Oppenheimer – ‘the father of the atomic bomb’ – and the story of the race with the Nazis to develop the single most destructive weapon in human history.
While Oppenheimer revealed little to Miller during their meeting, the playwright was convinced he glimpsed regret in the physicist’s eyes, although Oppenheimer always maintained he had no regrets at the use of the bomb, and believed it saved many more millions of lives and avoided a World War III.
John Heffernan is tasked with bringing Oppenheimer to life in Angus Jackson’s engrossing and energetic production.
On stage virtually throughout, Heffernan’s utterly compelling portrayal walks the fine line between great science genius and ordinary fallible man. He strides onto the stage and introduces himself to the audience as ‘Oppie’ – as if addressing a lecture hall – informing those present “if some aspect of the lecture doesn’t make sense, then perhaps we are getting somewhere.”
Oppenheimer could not do it alone, and neither does Heffernan, with support from a faultless cast.
He and his fellow boffins start out as communist idealists raising money to help the fight against Franco in Spain, but only too soon they are swept up by the enormity and reality of their undertaking.
They scrawl their mind-bending equations on the stage which doubles as a huge blackboard, breaking occasionally to explain the science in snappy entertaining fashion. And while those in the audience who arrived with little or no knowledge of atomic physics were not going to leave as experts, the presentation here was even partly understandable.
Oppenheimer and those involved in the Manhattan Project were aware their work would change the course of history, but they were also people with everyday lives and everyday concerns, and that shines through in Morton-Smith’s play – one where people laugh, cry and die. There is real humanity in the face of the inhuman consequences of the bomb.
The path to Hiroshima and Nagasaki is also at times frighteningly chilling. The theatre is plunged into darkness to be replaced in imaginations with a mushroom cloud as the rumble of the first test explosion almost shakes the Swan’s very foundations.
And then a young boy climbs out of the Nagasaki-destined ‘Fat Man’ bomb with a reminder that facts can hide the real human consequences of an action.
And nothing is more chilling than those now immortal words from Hindu scripture that Oppenheimer utters at the very end – “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”.
Oppenheimer runs until March 7. Visit www.rsc.org for tickets and further details.