It’s hard not to watch all of the RSC’s productions through the lens of Shakespeare – Mark Ravenhill’s version of Life of Galileo at the Swan Theatre in 2013 even gave in to a knowing quote (which escapes me) from one of Stratford-upon-Avon’s regular shows. But the company’s new commission Oppenheimer feels particularly in keeping with its nominal work; tracing scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer’s development of the atomic bomb from eureka moment to the horrors of Hiroshima, Tom Morton-Smith’s play is a tragic 20th Century history with a troubled hero at its core.
A nuanced performance by John Heffernan holds the centre of the piece, sympathetically fleshing out the American physicist with a complex, flawed humanity; an ambitious man torn between ideological passion, patriotism and the cold hard numbers of how many lives could be lost or saved by the decisions and equations he makes. As the war wears on and Oppenheimer’s own personal life and affiliations come under fire, a reluctantly powerful tragic figure emerges amidst the production’s slick, HBO series-style plotting and retro aesthetic (all boxy checked suits and victory rolls) which keeps things pacily
But this rather traditional structure has its drawbacks – Morton-Smith can’t seem to resist ostentatiously rounding off each scene with a real zinger of a line, and Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty (Thomasin Rand) is written a slightly hammy Lady Macbeth turn at the end of the first act, urging her husband on with the Manhattan Project by promising that “everyone will BASK in your LIGHT!” once the weapon is completed. Angus Jackson’s direction also continues the RSC’s ongoing commitment to punctuating shows with large numbers of people suddenly running onstage, dancing around for a minute then disappearing, and there’s some safely non-interactive audience interaction that’s so half-hearted you wonder why he bothered.
The depth and sophistication of the play’s ethical and political scope generally overshadows these self-conscious stylistic flourishes, though. There’s definitely something of Brecht’s Galileo here too – like the renaissance astronomer, Oppenheimer grapples with the moral quandaries and terrible possibilities of his scientific discoveries, drawing suspicion and persecution from the authorities for his own unacceptable beliefs; previously a regular at communist party fundraisers, “Oppie” finds himself under government surveillance as a US military-employed scientist with the red scare heating up. Morton-Smith steers clear of Brechtian didacticism or fixed morality in all this, sparing us a one-sided narrative and instead laying out the political and social complexities of Oppenheimer’s choices to unpick and ponder over.
The “science bit” itself is dealt with engagingly in Jackson’s production, with the use of projected, animated diagrams and vigorously chalked equations all over the blackboard-ed stage floor bringing the ins and outs of atomic fission to life in a way that’s (just about) understandable for a general, physics A Level-less audience. The overall concept is most compelling when it moves away from realism (a choreographed physical sequence and series of descriptive accounts during the bombing of Hiroshima are particularly chilling), since these moments contrast stylistically with the more conventional, men-in-suits-talking-science scenes.
Morton-Smith’s interweaving of personal, political and scientific strands is deftly done, as Oppie juggles his ideologically dangerous social group of former communist party members, a string of unstable lovers and an unloved child with his work in the lab. The domestic trap that he constructs for himself becomes as fraught as the political games he’s forced to play in his professional life, all of which build towards a tensely ticking drama that – with a noticeably long three hour running time that could do with streamlining – shakes but never truly explodes.