Oppenheimer John Heffernan as oppenheimer ben allen as edward tellerOppenheimer’ by Tom Morton-Smith at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

March, 2015

A guest review by Derek Linney

Oppenheimer provided us with the motivation to take a trip to Stratford and our first visit to the Swan Theatre. Apart from the appeal of the play’s subject we were attracted to see John Heffernan whose career we have followed with interest for a number of years. The Swan Theatre was a perfect setting for the play; the thrust stage enabling a closeness to the performance and an engaging experience. Tom Morton-Smith, the playwright, combines the personal story of Oppenheimer and the other physicists, the political context, especially that of the communist affiliations or sympathy of many of those scientists and the challenge of the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb at Los Alamos during WW2.

Although it touches upon the moral dilemmas of creating the first weapon of mass destruction this aspect is relatively briefly covered in comparison to the personal and political pressures of the Manhattan Project. This is justifiable in the context of the development of the bomb as the moral debate was primarily a later, post-war one; at the time the challenge was to develop the bomb before Nazi Germany could develop one. This context is especially critical given that many of the scientists involved were European émigrés who had first-hand knowledge of the horrors of totalitarian Germany.

The personal and political stories interact; most especially with Oppenheimer distancing himself from both his communist member parents and some of his friends and colleagues. The reason for this lack of loyalty is ambiguous: was it primarily a result of Oppenheimer’s professional ambitions or an unfortunate consequence of the paramount importance of completing the project. There is also a complexity in Oppenheimer’s personal relationships with the women in his life. Ultimately Oppenheimer is driven to achieve the goal of the project irrespective of the cost upon his friendships and relationships.

The play brilliantly conjures up the intensity of the project, the lives of the protagonists and the political atmosphere in which the USSR was both an ally in the war but also the ideological enemy as the home of communism and one has some sympathy with those physicists who felt that the secrets of the project should be shared with America’s allies. The uneasy relationship between the military and the academics and their different world views is well explored and highlights Oppenheimer’s crucial role as the bridge between the demands of the military and the working styles of the physicists.

Heffernan is compelling in the lead roll and is strongly supported by the rest of the cast. Perhaps one can criticize the portrayal of Edward Teller, who went on to lead the hydrogen (super) bomb project, as somewhat of a caricature of an obsessive Hungarian Eastern European. The pace of the staging and the rapid switching between the professional work, the project’s social environment and the personal dramas provides an engaging, compelling and enjoyable theatre experience complete with musical interludes and a clear period mood. My one criticism would be that the play doesn’t fully convey the sheer technical challenge of the project; despite the presence of the leading physicists and mathematicians in the world brought together in one place and with one objective it was by no means a foregone conclusion that there would be a successful conclusion. The tension as to whether their efforts would be successful is glossed over. However, Tom Morton-Smith is to be congratulated in bringing to the stage a play about a scientific project that neither dumbs-down nor misrepresents the nature of scientific research, a tendency in too many plays we have seen in the last few years.