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Oppenheimer – RSC: The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

 

Writer: Tom Morton-Smith

Director: Angus Jackson

Reviewer: James Garrington

“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

These are words from Hindu scripture, written four thousand or more years ago. They are also the words that J. Robert Oppenheimer later claimed came into his mind upon witnessing the first atomic bomb test in 1945. Oppenheimer went on to become known as the “Father of the Atomic Bomb”; that much is fairly common knowledge, but what of Oppenheimer as a person? That is the aspect of his life that this production sets out to explore.

At first the script by Tom Morton-Smith is quite bitty, jumping around rapidly from scene to scene and place to place as it sets out some of the background to the people, and their relationships. It settles down though, and manages to very effectively combine an exploration of character and personality with an almost procedural tale of setting up a secret laboratory, mixed in with all of that is a lesson in elementary theoretical physics which is carried off extremely well.

At the centre of the whole piece is a riveting tour-de-force from John Heffernan as Oppenheimer. Not only has he many of Oppenheimer’s physical characteristics, but he somehow manages to inhabit the character completely; his personality, his walk, his mannerisms. Almost self-effacing at first, as the play goes on he becomes harder and less tolerant; and Oppenheimer’s huge ego begins to show through as he becomes so driven by what he is working on that he is prepared to change his convictions, and focus on the work regardless of the – sometimes tragic – impact on his friends and family.

Supporting Heffernan is a large cast, notably the two main ladies in Oppenheimer’s life. Catherine Steadman plays his lover Jean Tatlock, tough and slightly brash initially yet showing an inner vulnerability when things get difficult for her; and Thomasin Rand is his wife Kitty, apparently attracted to Oppenheimer at first sight, and who leaves her husband for him only to find herself almost abandoned in the isolated Los Alamos community, turning to alcohol for support.

Jackson’s direction allows things to move along at a brisk pace with almost overlapping scenes taking place on a typically sparsely-furnished Swan Theatre stage. The design by Robert Innes Hopkins, and lighting (Paul Anderson) help keep things moving too, and help the audience to focus on what’s important at any particular time. Music composed by Grant Olding helps set the scene from time to time, performed live. As the audience return from the interval, we find a small cabaret has been set up on the stage performing not original music, but a beautiful popular song from the period – I don’t want to Set the World on Fire, giving a sly sideways nod to the subject matter of the play.

The piece rightly avoids the sensationalism that could be used to bring out the horrors to the bomb, especially in the light of what we know now. Instead it is almost understated, both in the performances and overall approach.

Although it doesn’t provide all of the answers, this is definitely a play to catch while you can; not only do you get a lesson in theoretical physics for your money, you also get a slightly disturbing insight into the nature of people who can work on the developing such weapons – plus an absolute masterclass in characterisation from John Heffernan.

Runs until 7th March 2015 | PhotoKeith Pattison

  Writer: Tom Morton-Smith Director: Angus Jackson Reviewer: James Garrington "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." These are words from Hindu scripture, written four thousand or more years ago. They are also the words that J. Robert Oppenheimer later claimed came into his mind upon witnessing the first atomic bomb test in 1945. Oppenheimer went on to become known as the “Father of the Atomic Bomb”; that much is fairly common knowledge, but what of Oppenheimer as a person? That is the aspect of his life that this production sets out to explore. At first the script…

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.