Oppenheimer – January 2015

Experience: 8/10

By Tom Morton-Smith

Directed by Angus Jackson

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Tuesday 20th January 2015

Wow. We didn’t have high expectations for this play, despite it being in the Swan and starring John Heffernan (one of our favourite actors) as Oppenheimer himself. We were prepared for it to be a bit dry, a bit too technical, perhaps even – dare I say it? – a bit boring, but the whole thing was an amazing piece of theatre, with music, jokes and lots of interesting information as well as lively debates. And yes, the horrific effects of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were brought out in a very effective and moving way. Given that this was a preview, I’d expect the performances to come on even more, and now that we know who is who in the story, our second viewing should bring out much more detail. Time will tell.

We made sure we were early in case there was any pre-show entertainment, but there wasn’t, at least not before the start; the singer started up about half-way through the interval. The set took a little while to reveal itself fully, as the lighting was a bit gloomy when we first entered the auditorium. What I thought were long metal tubes turned out to be long metal girders, and these dominated the stage. Not excessively so from our angle – beside the left walkway near the back – but I don’t know what the view was like from the balconies. The girders came out from the back wall and were angled so that they crossed over above the centre of the stage, ending before they reached the second balcony at the back of the auditorium. There was a glitterball hanging down in front of the crossover point. The floor was covered in black tiles, there was a piano back right and a large blackboard rested on a sturdy wooden easel centre back: a song, a dance and a lecture on nuclear physics. Most of the band was situated on the top centre balcony above the stage, but I could see at least one guitarist on the right hand balcony section. There was no lower balcony crossing tonight and the left balcony stayed empty for the whole performance as far as I could see.

The lights didn’t go down for the start of the performance; instead, Oppenheimer came on and started talking to us about the purpose of science. He wrote his name on the board, and it became clear he was addressing us as his students. At the end he told us all to call him Oppie, so I will. Then there were lots of people on the stage having a party, which turned out to be a fundraiser to back the Communist Party’s fight against the fascists in Spain. Americans seemed to be waking up to socialism in response to their fear of fascists taking over, and there were plenty of supporters at the do, Oppie’s brother Frank among them. It was a bit difficult to tell who was who at this point, but the relationships became clear pretty quickly.

Interspersed with the party scene was another layer of activity. Three of Oppie’s students met and talked together about where they’d studied before, working with Oppie, etc., while the rest of the party cast dropped to their knees, took out pieces of chalk and began to write formulae on the floor. It sounds bizarre, but it worked surprisingly well; we were caught up in the conversation among the three students and although I did wonder if the formulae were real, I wasn’t particularly distracted by them.

This layering went on a few more times. We learned from the party scene that the fundraiser was being held in Oppie’s home, and that the woman who appeared to be the hostess was not his wife but that they were in a difficult relationship. From the students we learned about bombarding uranium with neutrons, and how that caused the uranium to split into different elements; they projected the periodic table onto the board and representations of atoms onto the floor as part of this bit.

A brief scene where Albert Einstein read out a letter to the US president, warning him about the possibility of a nuclear bomb, was followed by another Communist Party event at which Oppie met Kitty, the American wife of a British man. There was an instant attraction, and he took the opportunity to mention his ranch in New Mexico. Next he was talking to another friend about the problems he had with the Russians, especially since they’d signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler. If Communism was to be the answer to fascism, how could Russia co-exist peacefully with that totalitarian regime? It appeared that Oppie was probably not a member of the Party, but he was definitely left-leaning in his attitude.

The rest of the first half took us up to the beginnings of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, and showed us scenes from Oppie’s personal life as well. Kitty’s husband was OK with a divorce, especially as his wife was now pregnant with Oppie’s baby, and by the interval Kitty and Oppie were apparently married and Kitty was pregnant again. Not that she cared for motherhood – she sought solace in the whisky bottle (or any other booze that was lying around) and lit up another cigarette: how times have changed. Oppie did have a knack for picking troubled women. Mind you, Kitty was very supportive of his work, and kept encouraging him to go on, so maybe his choices weren’t so bad after all. His previous relationship with Jean faded into the background, partly because of Kitty and also because he was advised to drop all of his previous friends in the Communist Party – that happened towards the end of the first half.

Work-wise, we saw Oppie take the lead in getting scientists together to think through the theoretical aspects of a nuclear bomb. He told us the story of the chess board and the rice grains – an example of how powerful simple doubling can be – to get across the potential for a chain reaction. A slideshow on the board supported a talk on the impact of a very large explosion in 1917 – number of casualties, distance at which explosion heard, etc. At this point, the scientists had absolutely no idea just how big this sort of explosion would be nor what sort of impact it would have. Knowing what we know now, the details they were giving of this earlier explosion had to be on the skimpy side for gauging a nuclear detonation.

It was after Oppie outlined the scope of the scientists’ teamwork that we had the first input by the American military in the person of Colonel Groves. Or General Groves, as he swiftly became. William Gaminara did a lovely job of recounting the meeting at which Groves, despite his objections and preference for an active posting, was put in charge of developing an atomic bomb. The promotion helped. Oppenheimer was a natural choice to lead the project, given that he’d shown the initiative in getting scientists from various universities to work together, and he accepted Groves’ offer with few reservations. There was a price though; he would have to drop his CP contacts, which he was reluctant to do at first, but the siren call of fame or science or whatever drew him on, and in the next scene he tried to get his brother to tear up his CP card. His brother resented the interference in his life, naturally, and that began a rift between them that would last a number of years.

Now Oppie had a different focus for the scientific work, and the team was coming together to actually build a bomb. These were theoretical physicists, mind you, and for them, the instructions for an atomic bomb were simple: smash two chunks of Uranium 235 together. More was needed. We had a lovely interlude at this point, when Edward Teller, the Hungarian physicist, played the piano and turned round to deliver the lines of a very amusing Hungarian joke. It concerned the convoluted reasons why the Hungarian army was fighting the Russians, and the punchline, although I found it funny, didn’t raise a laugh. As Teller said, “Perhaps you have to be Hungarian”: now that got a huge laugh.

Oppie’s writer friend, Haakon Chevalier, whom we’d seen a bit of during the earlier scenes, approached Oppie with an offer to pass information about the atomic bomb to the Russians. As allies who were now fighting Hitler, it seemed a reasonable thing to do, and Oppie didn’t respond immediately. Instead he busied himself setting up Los Alamos. More scientists were drafted in, including one of Oppie’s students who was a known Communist. Feynman and some others turned up as well, and Oppie was even enlisted as a Colonel, despite his physical defects. He and his sidekick, Bob Serber, were really getting into the military groove when the German scientist, Hans Bethe, took them to task for trying to impose this formality on all of the scientists. He reminded them of the fascist approach, and that his family were still in Germany, shaming them into civvies again.

There was more technical information about the need to wrap the disintegrating uranium in some non-reactive material to prevent the released neutrons from dissipating in all directions. Teller also came up with the idea of including extra fuel to make an even bigger explosion, and this was dubbed a thermo-nuclear reaction. He wanted to focus on this version of the bomb, but Oppie decided they would get the basic device working first, to Teller’s displeasure. The first half ended with Oppie telling Kitty about Haakon’s offer to get secret info to the Russians, and how he had realised that he, Oppie, could have the power to kill everyone on the planet.

During the interval, the space at the back was blocked off by a new Los Alamos building made out of corrugated iron and with an asymmetrical roof. With several minutes of the interval left, a singer came on and used a microphone on a stand to the left of the piano to give us some songs from the period – I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire was one of them, appropriately enough. Various cast members came back on during the songs, and after a while, once the audience had reassembled, Bob Serber and his wife came on and began to disseminate disinformation about the Los Alamos base, and none too subtly. They pretended to be strangers to each other, but when their mock conversation fell on deaf ears, they started going round the people in the bar, pushing the idea of electric rockets. They got so desperate they even tried to tell audience members this particular lie, but eventually they gave up.

Oppie visited Jean again after a long break, and we learned that he was being followed and surveilled by the secret service. After this visit he decided to come clean to the General, and told him of Chevalier’s approach, but without mentioning his name. That wasn’t good enough for the security chap, and after some pressure from the General, Oppie cracked.

His students and colleagues discussed the options for a nuclear device, comparing the various payloads with the resources needed to build them and the availability of those resources. Diagrams appeared on the board at the back and also on the floor – Little Boy, Thin Man, Fat Man. With the war nearly over in Europe, work was still going on frantically to prepare the bomb, and in the midst of this, Jean committed suicide. The character herself talked us through it, and then we saw the reactions of the Serbers, Kitty and Oppie. There was a brief glimpse of Haakon’s interrogation, and then a longer scene in which Oppie appeared to be visiting a therapist (Ruth Tolman, according to the text). This gave him a chance to explain to us something of his inner “iron core”, via the story of a time he had been badly treated by other boys at a summer school camp. When the ‘therapist’ kissed him, I realised that she was another one of Oppie’s conquests – he got through a packet of cigarettes faster than his women, but only just – and he finished off by informing us, and her, that the Germans had been miles behind in their nuclear bomb project.

The selection of the test site was followed by an attempt by one of the scientists to discuss the social impact of the bomb; Oppie soon put an end to that, showing us that he’d completely changed his attitudes from the opening scenes. He was also having difficulty at home where Kitty had taken to her bed, the better to enjoy her alcoholic stupor, leaving Charlotte Serber to nurse the Oppenheimer’s new baby girl. Charlotte insisted on Oppie taking the baby in his arms, but it was clear he wasn’t a family man, and with Kitty not being much of a mother, I wondered what happened to their children.

Speaking of family matters, Oppie’s brother Frank was posted to Los Alamos, and their reunion after many years apart led to an argument over keeping the Russians, current allies, in the dark about the bomb. This bit went on too long for me, and I found myself getting a little bored, but we were soon into the actual Trinity test. And things livened up, if I can put it that way.

There were men out in the desert to watch the bomb going off – military uniform was mandatory for this bit, and no women were allowed – and a huge blue thing was winched along the left girder till it hung over the centre of the stage. It had all sorts of wires and knobbly bits, and looked pretty gruesome, even if I hadn’t known its purpose. Given that it would be reckless to detonate a real bomb in the cramped confines of the Swan, the creative team had settled for a symbolic representation of the explosion, using complete darkness to represent the intense bright light and with the characters describing the event. They were crouched down, and dancers moved among them as individuals stood up to recite a piece of the overall dialogue. Richard Feynman played the bongos to the rear of the group, and this whole amazing scene segued into the after-test party. These people still had no connection to the eventual devastation the bomb would bring; they were just celebrating the success of a high-intensity project. The bomb was trundled back behind the rear wall during this scene. After the party we saw some of the other reactions. There was ambivalence, understandably, and Oppie himself had a very emotional reaction – he collapsed onto the ground, shaking, and was comforted by his brother.

Serber was off to Japan to be the observer for the actual bombings. After saying sayonara to his wife, the trapdoor in the middle of the stage opened up and a large bright yellow bomb with black stripes lifted up out of it. It was even bigger than the test bomb – Fat Man. Serber talked to the pilot who would be flying the bomber, and as he gave details of his speed and direction, Serber scrawled formulae on the bomb with chalk, calculating the return flight path to avoid being caught in the blast. When they left, a small boy climbed out of the bomb and sat on the rear end of it to give us a description of the bomb’s effect when it was dropped on Hiroshima: this was the moving part. Even though I couldn’t make out a lot of the words, I heard enough, and my sense of shock and horror was very strong.

The boy left and the bomb was lowered down again before Kitty and General Groves discussed the situation; Oppie was too unwell to join them. Serber gave a short lecture in Japan on calculating the effects of the blast, and in particular how you could tell the height of the explosion by measuring the length of the shadows on the ground caused by the incinerated human beings. At last he had to stop, the implications of what he was saying having sunk in. He told us of seeing a half-charred horse in a field, and again the horror of the event came across clearly.

Back to America, and a short scene in which Oppie refused to help a former student, one whose left-wing views he helped shape, to get a job after the war. The final scene showed Oppie and Kitty leaving (but leaving where?), and with the lights coming back up again as in the first scene, Oppie talked about his new reality, living in a world where everyone knew his name, where he was inextricably linked with The Bomb. He had saved American lives, but were some lives more valuable than others? He went back into his ‘iron core’ concept as he wound up to the inevitable conclusion: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”. And so it ended.

This was a powerful piece of theatre, moving from the jocularity and energy of the early scenes through the scientific aspects of building the bomb plus some of the political factors, to the final sense of heaviness and doom as the world woke up to the uncertainty of the nuclear age. I have seen this story told a number of times, usually in documentary form with or without a dramatized element, but this play seems to have captured the wider social context in which these scientists operated, something which is often missing from drier factual presentations. The level of scientific information was pitched just perfectly for us – not too much detail, but enough to get a sense of the technical challenges they faced and the relative ignorance of just how powerful the bomb would be.

The performances were all excellent, and John Heffernan was absolutely outstanding. While the free-flowing nature of the performance kept things moving along, it did make it harder to identify the various characters. I took most of the actual names in these notes from the cast list and text, as I picked up very few of them during the performance itself, but I could still tell who was who by sight. I did also have trouble hearing some of the dialogue, especially with Jean and Kitty, and this meant I took longer to grasp what was going on in Oppie’s personal relationships compared to the work ones. Even so, there was only one place where I felt some cutting would be helpful, and with this performance under our belts, I hope to enjoy this even more second time around.

© 2015 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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