by Chloe Cheung
Readers are advised that this review makes details of the plot explicit.
The threat of nuclear war between the Cold War superpowers plunged the latter half of the 20th century into some of its darkest days. Tim Morton-Smith’s gripping new play Oppenheimer now brings the man behind the atomic bomb to the stage.
Immediately, we are plunged into the zeitgeist: at a Communist fundraiser party, concerned guests decry the spread of fascism in Europe. We hear how German chemists have discovered the processes of atomic fission, with possibly devastating consequences for the Allies. At Einstein’s recommendation, the US government decides to take action. Robert Oppenheimer is picked to lead the top-secret weapons development programme: Project Manhattan is born.
The production is filled with striking moments; credit is due to director Angus Jackson. Oppenheimer succinctly explains the basics of the theoretical physics involved through clear, lecture-style explanations scrawled on blackboards, so even non-scientists will be able to follow the physics that underpins the play. Most memorably, cleverly utilised projections onto the stage floor demonstrate how added neutrons destabilise the uranium to the point of explosion.
Against the backdrop of rising global political turmoil, Oppenheimer is in the ascendant, rising rapidly to the top ranks of the military. John Heffernan’s performance as J. Robert Oppenheimer is the most compelling, as befits the most complex character in the play. Heffernan encapsulates the contradictions within Oppenheimer’s self: his arrogance, optimism, ambition, weakness and, ultimately, his self-loathing at what he has created.
In the play, Oppenheimer boldly states that the existence of nuclear weapons would eradicate all future wars. With hindsight though, the audience is all too aware of the horrific consequences of nuclear war.
Oppenheimer raises some of the most fundamental questions in our society today about science: the limits of ethics, the justification (if any) for use of nuclear weapons in wartime, and how we exploit scientific advances for destructive and dangerous purposes. The nuclear question is still brutally relevant in our post-Cold War world.
The RSC is running a coach trip to see Oppenheimer on 18th February; return coach travel and a theatre ticket cost just £17. Buy tickets here. BP £5 tickets for 16 – 25-year-olds are available for each performance. Oppenheimer is running until 7th March.