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Oppenheimer - Royal Shakespeare Company - Review

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by Alison Brinkworth (subscribe)
Freelance journalist in Birmingham with a passion for the dynamic theatre, art, food and fashion scene in Britain's 'Second City'.
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New powerful play on race to create the atomic bomb
This captivating new play opens with the Swan Theatre transformed into the lecture theatre of acclaimed scientist and professor J Robert Oppenheimer - the man behind the atomic bomb.

Addressing the crowd as if they were his students, he warns them to keep up and that "I can make it clearer, but I can't make it simpler".

Oppenheimer is a captivating play about the atomic bomb

It's the first of many powerful lines in a fine script by English playwright Tom Morton-Smith, whose previous works include Salt Meets Wound.

Taking us through the personal, political and scientific ambitions of not just Oppenheimer but his close team of great minds, lovers and family, it's an exploration into the motivations and reasoning behind such a world-changing, devastating creation.

There is a lot of science, but director Angus Jackson attempts to make the information on protons, and the like, easier to understand using clever hi-tech graphics projected on to a board or drawn in chalk by the cast on the stage floor.

Scientists feverishly scribble equations on the chalkboard floor throughout the play, which gives an energy to the ground-breaking work they are undertaking amid the outbreak of World War II.

Scientific explanations are scribbled on the floor in chalk and give an energy to the production.

Starting off ahead of the war, we get to know the world of esteemed professor Oppenheimer and his friends, many with communist sentiments, raising money at glamorous cocktail parties to fight against facism in Europe. He's a great mind with a messy love life, torn between the two women in his life.

It's these close allegiances, even family and romantic connections, that Oppenheimer will ultimately have to sacrifice in years to come if he is to continue working on the Manhattan Project to create an atomic bomb with the strict, unrelenting US military. It's the severing of these closest ties that slowly demonstrate a detached, ambitious streak in the scientist, who put scientific recognition above it all.

Oppenheimer RSC
Impressive Thomasin Rand stars as Kitty, one of the two women in Oppenheimer's life.

While his likeable team, including bongo-playing Richard Feynman, Hans Bethe and Edward Teller, have a question of conscience over dropping the atom bomb on Japan so late on in the Second World War, Oppenheimer is resolute in his conviction to demonstrate to the world the powerful weapon they had created in order to deter World War III.

It is not a question of should, it is a question of when, of where and by whom", Oppenheimer tells a colleague. In contrast, one of his students is plagued with guilt that his career-defining moment is "one part pride to one part horror".

The most powerful scene of all, as it should be, is when the weapon Little Boy is finally dropped on Hiroshima. It's simple and free of special effects but cuts straight to the emotions as a little boy climbs out of the bomb and tells the audience the stats and facts. It's all the more upsetting because it's a scientific, detached way of reporting one of the most destructive moments of the 20th Century.

Powerful lines resonate with the audience in Oppenheimer

Actor John Heffernan is superb as Oppenheimer, captivating with moral tales from Sanskrit literature, which he doesn't seem to apply to his own life. This play, however, seems to offer Oppenheimer some sense of remorse and self-awareness that he never proclaimed in real life. In fact, in interviews, he always maintained that the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan never troubled him.

At one point in the play, Oppenheimer says, I have it in me to kill every last soul on this planet, should I not be scared? It seems unlikely that the great scientist ever thought that way. If he had,maybe history would have taken a very different turn.

Actor John Heffernan is superb as J Robert Oppenheimer

And that's part of the beauty of this new production. It's thought-provoking, captivating and has memorable lines that will resonate with you for long after you have left the theatre.

Rating: 8/10

Until May 23, 2015 at Vaudeville Theatre, 43/45 Camden Road, London NW1 9LR

Book at the RSC website or on 020 7692 4444.

The video below is about Oppenheimer and the play.

There is a free post show talk back session on the play at the Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avaon on February 23 following the performance.

Cast and Creatives
Ben Allen
Ross Armstrong
Daniel Boyd
Vincent Carmichael
Laura Cubitt
Hedydd Dylan
Sandy Foster
William Gaminara
Michael Grady-Hall
John Heffernan
Jack Holden
Oliver Johnstone
Andrew Langtree
Joel MacCormack
Tom McCall
Josh O'Connor
Thomasin Rand
Catherine Steadman
Jamie Wilkes

Writer - Tom Morton-Smith
Director - Angus Jackson
Designer - Robert Innes Hopkins
Lighting - Paul Anderson
Music - Grant Olding
Sound - Christopher Shutt
Movement - Scott Ambler
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Why? Gripping new RSC play about the atomic bomb
Phone: 01789 403492
Where: Vaudeville Theatre
Your Comment
Interesting article - this looks like a fascinating show. Thanks for sharing!
by Erin (score: 2|560) 2134 days ago
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