Story of passion and despair a science and history lesson.
REVIEW Oppenheimer THE SWAN THEATRE, RSC, STRATFORD-UPONAVON THERE are key moments in 20th century history which will forever make your hair stand on end and this depiction of the race to build the atom bomb certainly does just that.
Tom Morton-Smith has beautifully crafted this story to show us more about the men behind that Manhattan Project as well as depicting the sense of political feeling in 1940s America - the backlash against Fascism spreading across Europe alongside a rise in communist sympathies in a pre-McCarthy era.
The play opens with physicist Oppenheimer delivering a brief lecture with the audience as his pupils. The scene quickly changes to a raucous party, with Oppenheimer and his communist friends raising money to help civilians caught up in the Spanish Civil War.
There is beautiful juxtaposition here - with the scene flitting from rousing speeches to scientific discussion - the cast dropping to the ground and scribbling mathematical equations on to the floor with chalk.
It says a great deal about the period but also about the complex background from where Oppenheimer came from - a man with great political passions as well as scientific ones and how he inevitably was forced to abandon one for the sake of the other.
John Heffernan is outstanding in the lead role, playing a gaunt yet attractive, vulnerable yet arrogant Oppenheimer who takes us on a rollercoaster ride through many different emotions throughout this three-hour play.
With just a lift of an eyebrow and tears in his eyes, Heffernan portrays beautifully the excitement, grief, passion and despair of Oppenheimer as he grapples to distance himself from his communist friends, deal with his unstable wife and lover and lead the Manhattan Project to its uneasy conclusion.
Catherine Steadman is superb as the passionate lover Jean Tatlock, whose suicide has an everlasting impact on Oppenheimer.
Thomasin Rand, who makes her RSC debut here, is also excellent as Oppenheimer's vulnerable and volatile wife.
The excitement and tension builds throughout this production as the scientists get closer to completing their task and then watching with despair at its devastating results with the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Scientist Bob Serber recalls one scene: "I stood there ...
looking at this horse... one side untouched, the other, burnt away to nothing. A crow landed on its flank and tugged at the meat like it was slow-pulled pork."
The play ends with an emotional, almost Shakesperan closing speech, with Oppenheimer reflecting on what he had done.
"The world knows my name and it knows what I have done. A skinny, intellectual elitist New York Jew with chest problems and sciatica ended the war. I feel I have left a loaded gun in a playground."
Morton-Smith's Oppenheimer is a history lesson, a science tutorial and a story of passion and despair all rolled into one. Not to be missed.
HHHHI SARAH PROBERT