Writer: Katherine Moar
Director: Stephen Unwin
As the Second World War came to an end in Europe, the British detained six of Germany’s top nuclear physicists, detained them in a large house near Cambridge, and clandestinely listened in on their conversations.
The goal of Operation Epsilon was to discover just how close Germany had been to building a nuclear weapon. Among the scientists’ number were Otto Hahn, who with Lise Meitner had discovered nuclear fission, and Werner Heisenberg, who formulated the basis of quantum mechanics.
On paper, the months at Farm Hall read like a Nobel Prize-heavy version of Celebrity Big Brother. And at the start of Katherine Moar’s play, that’s pretty much how it plays out: six men, caged in with little to entertain them, struggle to get along with each other. Factions grow, resentments fester, and old rivalries resurface.
This does throw up some interesting conversations: Archie Backhouse’s Bagge and Julius D’Silva’s Deibner, the two of the six men who joined the Nazi Party, are questioned over their rationales for doing so. But for much of the play’s first half, the banalities of life in Farm Hall do little more than reveal the players’ personalities – David Yelland’s Von Laue as the world-beaten older man, Daniel Boyd as cocksure Weisacker.
Most central, though are Forbes Masson’s Hahn and Alan Cox’s Heisenberg. The former is optimistic, avuncular, unflappable; the latter, slightly aloof and implacably certain.
That all changes with the news that America has dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Suddenly, with an inciting incident – the biggest there could be – what has heretofore been a slowly building character study gets room to expand and be something more.
Self-reflection turns into accusation; if Germany possessed the foremost minds in theoretical physics, the men who devised the principles in the first place, how could they not have developed such a weapon for themselves?
Cox delivers a nuanced portrayal as Heisenberg’s previous judgement is called into question. He had previously claimed that the amount of Uranium-235 needed for a bomb would be too large and too heavy to form an effective weapon, so the question of whether he hid the truth so that Hitler would not get his hands on such a device is an intriguing one.
But the dramatic, emotional heart is Masson. When Hahn hears of the death toll in Japan, he goes to pieces, taking the responsibility and shame for the consequences of America’s action upon himself, the co-inventor of nuclear fission. His emotions form the core of Farm Hall and the play is all the better for it.
This being Moar’s debut work, there are elements which one feels a more experienced playwright might handle better. Many of the play’s scene transitions come out of nowhere: it feels like the writer is keen to progress to the next set piece so just stops the previous one. Hiroshima, the moment which catapults the play into one of passion rather than passivity, comes too late in the piece.
The most interesting elements of Moar’s play come from the characters’ conflicted feelings about their homeland. When it came to the war, none of them wanted Hitler to win; but they did not want Germany to lose. A dependency on the Farm Hall transcripts means that seam is not explored in any great depth, though.
By the end, Heisenberg’s implacable certainty has faded. He knows where he is, but not what direction his life is going to take. That duality also applies to Farm Hall: a play that is principled and sure of itself in some ways, but uncertain in others.
Continues until 8 April 2023