The newly commissioned play, Oppenheimer, by Tom Morton-Smith is a total triumph for the Royal Shakespeare Company in every way. It introduces an exceptionally talented new playwright, who has risen to the demands of his commission and the requirement to use a large ensemble company brilliantly; a strong new director and his team; and much acting talent that one will want to follow. Every element meshes beautifully to make a truly gripping, dramatic, thought-provoking and thrilling event.
To begin with, Morton-Smith has given the production the strongest possible foundation in a script that’s compellingly intelligent, beautifully constructed, dramatically articulate and deeply theatrical. He’s made vivid and real the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the whole team of extraordinary geniuses (and their wives, lovers and military keepers) involved in the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb. Without simplifying, the script manages to make clear and comprehensible the politics, the philosophical implications, the military and political context in which the project developed and the enormous moral issues it raised—all the while also explicating the physics so that a lay audience can actually get the drift.
The director, Angus Jackson has forged an ensemble of actors into a deluxe team working in synch throughout the play’s three-hour journey. His staging engages the audience not only with the words of the text but with movement. One of the compelling metaphors for how hard and constantly the scientists grappled with their problems is having the actors fall to the floor from time to time—a floor that is also a blackboard— to scribble their formulae as they invent them. The set, choreography and costume design work as an almost Brechtian conceptualization, placing the story clearly in its historical period, strongly evoking the era of World War II in America—its music, its outfits, its politics.
The play is remarkable in evoking the inhabitants of Los Alamos and the sense of the isolated and intense hothouse world they were living in. it also interweaves the personal lives and complicated relationships so naturally with the politics and the physics of that strange, dreadful, complex, terrifying, and confused-yet-heroic time that one is enveloped in the pressures, the psychological stresses and the sheer manic fun that everyone must have been having. The musicians not only deserves praise for their idiomatic playing of era’s contemporary music but the actors in the show as well, who play the piano and the bongos, and sing. When the interval comes, get back to your seat in good time because there is a vibrant and evocative cabaret act that introduces Act II before it starts.
The show is simply superb. And above all, John Heffernan suggests the spirit, the soul, the intelligence and the difficulties of being J. Robert Oppenheimer, responding to the needs of the military, the political and the personal exigencies of his life. His genius, his detachment, his confusions are all portrayed; his body language seems extraordinarily right; and one also understand his stature as a man capable of leading the team to build the bomb faster in a grizzly race with the Germans–a bomb that he hopes will be so frightening that it will put an end to war.
The play has many wonderful, memorable moments, not least the two appearances of a bomb in Part Two and the use of everything from bebop dancing to Native American movement and rhythms. Many of the actors stand out, especially Catherine Steadman as Jean Tatlock and Hedydd Dylan as Jackie Oppenheimer. In fairness, every performance is memorable. But above all Heffernan’s performance is so staggeringly good that I came away thinking he’s going to be an actor very much like Alec Guinness – a man who can disappear into and become every role he takes on. His awkward body language, his speaking rhythms and tone of voice, his completely non-slip American accent never for a moment allow you to think that you are watching an actor – he simply is J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Oppenheimer is a fine example of what theatre can achieve when it is at its best – telling its story entertainingly, grippingly; provocative; and engaging both the emotions and the intellect throughout. I have nothing but praise for this production, this script and this company. Finally, Oppenheimer deals impressively and lucidly not only with the topic of the building of the A-bomb and its aftermath, but with the inevitable march to McCarthyism and the Cold War. This play manages to make its bigger-than-life characters achingly human, evoking both our sorrow and our pity for a turning point in global history. There are rumors of a transfer to the West End and, perhaps, to New York—a fitting tribute to the birthplace of the Manhattan Project.
Oppenheimer is in repertory in the Swan Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK until 7 March 2015. It will open in London for an eight-week run on March 27. A must-see! tickets
Much Ado about Love, Lost and Won
The RSC has paired new productions of Love’s Labours Lost and Much Ado About Nothing to promote the idea that the latter is the mysterious lost play Love’s Labours Won. Certainly, for centuries, everyone has noted various connections of theme between the plays; and it has always been said that Rosaline and Berowne are a sketch for Beatrice and Benedick.
For those reasons alone it’s interesting to see Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry take on both roles. I attended a matinee of the first and an evening performance of the second on the same day. I was impressed by the committed ensemble work of the actors, the evocative sets and costumes of Simon Higlett, the terrific music by Nigel Hess. Because of the anniversary year of the outbreak of World War One, the first play was set in July 1914, and the second just after the war, so that the men of Messina were returning from its carnage.
It’s a clever ploy, and it enhances enjoyment of both plays in some ways; but it doesn’t really convince me of the premise. Nor do the two plays being done together entirely work. They don’t really illuminate each other except peripherally. In fact, I am pretty convinced after the abrupt ending to Love’s Labours Lost that the play referred to as Love’s Labours Won is not an alternative title for Much Ado About Nothing, but actually a lost play. Love’s Labours Lost felt to me as if it hit a surprise climax, rather like the scene in Much Ado in the church that spins the play into an other, darker sphere. I propose therefore that the final scene of Love’s Labours Lost is the climax of a ten-act structure, the climax of a play and its sequel, and that Love’s Labours Won has to be a real sequel continuing the same story with the same characters a year later—not just another, later and better play that happens to share some of the concerns, themes and even character types of the first.
That said, I enjoyed the experience of the two plays enormously. They are good to see together because of the way Christopher Luscombe has conceived the interpretations and cross references; they are certainly worth a trip to Stratford. There are many felicities in Luscombe’s approach, not the least in some of the cross castings, among them Nick Haverson as Costard in the first and Constable Dogberry in the second. Sam Alexander, who plays the King of Navarre charmingly in the first play, turns into the wicked Don John in the second. Everyone on the stage is deserving of praise.
The RSC is continuing with its policy of intelligent and integrated repertoire that tends to cross-fertilise ideas and also displays an exemplary eye for casting. Christopher Luscombe’s pacing tends to be a bit on the fast side, which is not a bad thing with these comedies, and he has a great sense of invention for business that fleshes out the characterizations and the action. This is a thoroughly intelligent and enjoyable presentation of both plays and well worth seeing for oneself.
Love’s Labours Lost and Love’s Labours Won (Much Ado About Nothing) continue in repertoire at the RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 14 March 2015.