Thursday, 2 April 2015

Review Oppenheimer

by Tom Morton-Smith

The Big Bang

Years ago when Traffic Light Theatregoer was just a little molecule and her trusty sidekick not even a single neuron, Walt Disney, no less, and a real German scientist Heinz Haber introduced her to the joys of nuclear physics. ;)

For her rural primary school hired various instructive films for the edification of its young minds and, lo and behold, forever etched in her memory was the projected glorious Technicolor of Disney’s Our Friend the Atom.

Neither Walt nor Heinz (who actually had a very dark World War II record ) with their ambitions to educate the youth of the world with a script of admirable, if rather propagandist, clarity appear in the RSC’s Oppenheimer by Tom Morton-Smith. 

Nevertheless at least one refugee German and one Hungarian scientist do pop up in this lengthy three-hour stage biography of J Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the atomic bomb. Both speak heavily accented but entirely fluent idiomatic English, rather improbably for recent refugees.  

The play takes a linear trot through the career of Oppenheimer from university professor to the realisation of the potential chaos which his ivory tower and desert oasis research eventually unleashes on the beleaguered world. 

Mixed with this are the dynamics of unravelling personal and workplace relationships, self-interest and moral choices forced upon academics and public figures amidst the tricksy world politics and shifting alliances from, in the 1930s, the rise of Hitler and the Spanish Civil War to Hiroshima and the start of the Cold War.

Until the final scenes of the play, we encounter (unusually for such a biographical pageant) Oppenheimer as a stranger with hardly any context of family background as motivation, other than knowing his brother to be a communist and his subsequent love affairs, marriage and kids. 

This seems rather mischievous and skewed. For the play, which has transferred from Stratford Upon Avon to the Vaudeville Theatre in London,  presents a straightforward path for the students and lecturers into education. Any adoption of communism as a creed is seen as an equally straightforward ideological battle of theories:  Communism versus Fascism.

In fact, only mentioned in the very last scenes, J Robert Oppenheimer was from a secular Jewish German family. And the play never mentions the relatives in Germany or even the precarious academic situation for Jews the year he entered Harvard in 1922 during an attempt to issue a quota for Jewish students. 

So many of those in Oppenheimer’s circle were not simply adopting a political stance but felt a real threat both to themselves and their relatives if fascism marched on unchecked in Europe and made its presence felt in the USA.

J Robert Oppenheimer is a well-worn subject with films, TV and even an opera. There are times when the play Oppenheimer with its plethora of characters feels like a series of much smaller plays, with the eponymous character and his personal dilemmas lightly sketched and crowded in by other personalities.

This turns Oppenheimer into less an exploration, in scenes, of a life than a series of cartoons touching gently on weighty subjects without any in-depth investigation. 

Is the point that Oppenheimer took a resolutely secular route, thinking he could overcome any religious restrictions by ignoring them and plunging into research? Is this an attempt to make him into an everyman academic immersed in research, perplexed by personal relationships and emotional difficulties, finally made to face reality? None of these is adequately addressed or possibilities explored. 

Underwritten characterisation and on-the-nose dialogue sometimes distracted your petrolhead twosome from what should be a much more visceral story.

The second act did bring moments which linked the tale told to our 21st century life: The dominance of the gadget, the libraries of data in an automated capitalized world. Plus mention of increased access to higher education where, as we know in the case of university pre-credit-crunch financial modelling, love of pure research has its own inherent dangers.

At the same time, the production values of the play with Robert Innes Hopkins’ punchy design  and sharply effective direction from Angus Jackson admittedly draws fine performances from a hard-working cast with John Heffernan maintaining the energy of the piece as the scientist pursuing the ultimate goal. 

Maybe the nearest we have in Britain to J Robert Oppenheimer is Barnes Wallis, embodied in more naturalistic terms in 1955 by Michael Redgrave in The Dam Busters. Nevertheless, he remained firmly within the confines of the arms industry and cinema screen without the apocalyptic global implications of the nuclear weapon to which Oppenheimer’s name is inextricably linked.  

Meanwhile, in a week when The Economist has on its cover “The whole world is going to university. Is it worth it?", there is still enough about Oppenheimer and his environment in this play to give pause for thought, even beyond the bounds of atomic technology. An amber light.

Tickets to Oppenheimer courtesy of 
Official Theatre

NB A Guardian-like correction: TLT's blog is, as you may have noticed dear reader, full of accuracies but occasionally the sub-editors slip up, the proof readers let it through and perfection is not reached ... Apologies to writer Tom Morton-Smith, who for a few hours had the wrong name (Morton-Hill - wrong, Morton-Smith - correct) in this review ... We are of course mortified and would discipline and suspend those members of staff who allowed this primary school error to be published. Except of course TLT is the sub-editor - and the proof reader - and boss of this blog. However this public spirited review institution does not wish this one day to blow up into a Jeremy-Clarkson situation. So in an effort to be transparent, taking staff welfare and freelance discipline seriously, Human Resources (Senior Manager: TLT)  this time, while not summarily dismissing the subs' desk (TLT) and proof reader (TLT), has issued a stern first warning to all concerned ... ;)

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