Oppenheimer, RSC Swan, Stratford upon Avon - review: Immaculately acted

An absorbing and strangely gripping evening

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Have dramas about tormented scientists ever been more in vogue? After Turing and Hawking on screen, the Royal Shakespeare Company has put J Robert Oppenheimer on stage. Playwright Tom Morton-Smith makes an easily justifiable claim that the chief architect of the nuclear bomb that America dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had a bigger effect, not just on the history of the last century, but on philosophical debate for generations to come.

Writing in the programme, he says: “Robert Oppenheimer — perhaps more so than even Einstein or Stephen Hawking — has defined the public’s attitude towards scientists in our society.” Einstein’s turn to be played by a handsome young actor is yet to come. Certainly, it seems that we are re-evaluating scientific icons not just in terms of their effect on our understanding of the cosmos, codes and nuclear fission, but also in terms of their sex appeal; though my own knowledge of the history of nuclear physics isn’t detailed enough to know if Oppenheimer really was the babe magnet that this play makes him out to be.

But this is not in any way to trivialise this absorbing and thought provoking evening. Oppenheimer’s attractiveness is rightly made a key part of the plot, not just because of his dalliances or his stealing someone else’s wife to marry, but because it is also partly a cause of his hold over his fellow Soviet sympathisers from his early days, and their sense of betrayal when he rejects former ideals and former friends, and names names some years before the McCarthy trials, to embrace the American military in his passion to make the bomb.

John Hefferman is superb as Oppenheimer and hard to take your eyes off. His easy going almost playful manner, at first, becomes increasingly troubled, battling self-doubt with an overriding egotism, ,as he realises just what his passion is leading to. When his wife Kitty (a marvellous study by Thomasin Rand of a frustrated wife and reluctant mother on the edge of alcoholism and breakdown) chides him for being scared of his own potential, he replies: “I have it within me to murder every last soul on the planet — should I not be scared?”

Angus Jackson’s quick-fire direction makes the production zing along, with music and even touches of dance giving a hint of the disappearing jazz age that these scientists had sprung from. Oppenheimer, we learn, had like Turing and Hawking been incapable of forming proper family relationships. He’d had a troubled childhood and difficulties with his father. The tormented scientist’s troubles seem to come in familiar patterns. Perhaps this side of the play is not explored enough. I could also have wished for a wider debate on the ethics of the bomb.

If it is now almost a universal creed that it was an abomination not just in the scope for annihilation it opened up but in what it did to the people of Japan, this was not always the case, particularly in those last days of the War, against an enemy who refused to surrender. Oppenheimer does eventually refer to this in his final speech, pleading that he saved American soldiers’ lives, then questioning how those lives weighed against the baby and the pregnant woman. (After the War the real life Oppenheimer became an advocate for controlling nuclear proliferation).

Immaculately acted, this is a strangely gripping evening.