If you sat down with a large enough piece of paper, some pencils and available time, you could probably map out all the interactions that led you to that very moment you decided to map out those interactions. Everything begins small and leads to something greater. You could trace the moment you decided to leave the house at such and such a time and which train you went for, which job you applied for, which path you chose just like every other day, except you walked quicker that one day and then, by the thing we’ve all agreed to call chance, you found that one person that changed your life. Or that group of people who would influence your thinking and change the whole world. Change it forever.
Writer Tom Morton-Smith’s Oppenheimer, (currently at the RSC’s Swan Theatre from
15th January – 7th March) looks at the consequences of our macro interactions and plots them against the sub-atomic interactions being explored in physics at the beginning (and eventual end) of the Second World War. The play, delves into the psyche of those leading the research towards creation of the first atomic bomb and the people around them.
Oppenheimer doesn’t just chart dates, times and known facts. It wants you to ask yourself, who you would become, given enough pressure and circumstances. If you knew you could stop the death of millions of people on ‘your side’ through the death of some hundreds of thousands on ‘the other side’ would you do it? It’s a bit like the ‘would you kill Hitler’ questions or countless others that form the basis of simple philosophical questions. When it falls to you to make the decision, which way do you fall? And how free of bias and imperfection can you hope to be?
Directed by Angus Jackson, Oppenheimer is as much an opening up of (much previously unravelled) recent history, as it is an exploration of what kind of person does it fall to, to make such a decision to create a weapon. John Heffernan as J. Robert Oppenheimer gives us the full impact of what that decision might do to a man. By the end of the play we feel his suffering and are only returned to our own humanity when the stage dips to darkness.
The supporting cast of characters is like a who’s who of early Twentieth Century physics, including Richard Feyman, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller and even a snapshot appearance from Einstein himself. Such was the gathering of smartest people down in Los Alamos on the Manhattan project.
In Oppenheimer the man, we also see the changing nature of science in the modern world. As one character has it, all the chalk has been washed away with blood. It’s why, during the play, the floors are marked with calculations, atomic interactions drawn out and enhanced by digital projections. A blackboard constantly set out and written or projected on to. The stage is awash with chalk by the end of the play. It’s all over the cast’s costumes. It’s everywhere. And metaphorically, it’s then washed away. Scientists began to realise that their small band of brothers, tucked away in little understood corners of research, would make a difference to the whole world.
Who would you need to be, to decide to build a weapon that could kill so many people? Can only the perfect make those sorts of decisions? It’s a challenge for anyone to tackle this well worn path, but the creative team give it their best shot. In parts I was reminded of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, (back at the National from 24 June 2014 – 23 May 2015,) with the projected overlays of stage design and that feeling, when you leave the theatre, of having become broader in knowledge and assured that anything, could happen to any of us. In the case of Oppenheimer, though, we’d just need to be a genius. And a human being.