An evening in London: Oppenheimer

I finally got around to achieving a resolution from a few years ago. A conversation with friends recently gave the conviction that going to the theatre alone is really ok. And so making the most of my overnights when working in London saw me decide to buy a ticket to see Oppenheimer, brought to the Vaudeville Theatre by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Oppenheimer John Heffernan as oppenheimer ben allen as edward teller

John Heffernan as Robert Oppenheimer and Ben Allen as Edward Teller in Oppenheimer at Stratford. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

I’ll be honest, saying science isn’t my forte is a massive understatement, my reputation as an arts student working in construction is a cause of contention to many, and so as the play opened and I fell comfortable yet I was suddenly in a place of unease as the conversation moved onto atoms, neutrons, fissions, but it wasn’t physics at school, I didn’t switch off but became engrossed as the story successfully interwove social life with research. 

The play begins in 1939 with fascism spreading across Europe, we are introduced to the physicists of Berkeley, their commitment over cocktails to communism. Introduced to John Heffernan as J Robert Oppenheimer there is an instant engagement. Oppenheimer appears as an individual who wants to please others, but in a way which recognises his intelligence, his superiority; the complex nature of Oppenheimer’s character is so well conveyed that you cannot help but feel, at the play progresses, the state of a mind presented with what Oppenheimer perceives to be a race to prevent the impact of the atomic bomb, complexly through creating it, that by the USA winning the race will establish the existence of a threat, which will prevent any future war.

But to get to that point, as well as observing the physicists in their discovery, we are surrounded by the intertwined relationships, the impact of such work on friends and family, and the mind of Oppenheimer is further explored. I loved Catherine Steadman as Jean Tatlock, whilst such an independent, free spirit she so wonderfully allowed the delicate personality to unfold, to allow us to love her, and to witness her narrative, of her fatal decision to take her life, it was impossible to take breath. To see her character so similar and yet so contrasting to Kitty (Thomasin Rand) as you feel Oppenheimer’s preferences and persuasions to such strong women fail with their reliance.

Oppenheimer RSC2015 John Heffernan and Catherine Steadman

John Heffernan as J Robert Oppenheimer and Catherine Steadman as Jean Tatlock

 And then there is the crux of the play, the reason for focusing on Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb. From Berkeley to Los Alamos, the motivations of a group of scientists to win the race, to succeed in the construction of the first nuclear weapon. The irony of naming the bomb ‘Little Boy’, and the literal representation, as it disseminates Hiroshima. 

The design is fantastic, from the wonderful costume and music which resonates so clearly with the 1940’s, to a clever set, which uses electronic imagery to make the science more comprehensive, using chalkboards to create integration from social to science, and ultimately to the prototype and impact of the atomic bomb.

The entire production worked, and whilst the drama was gripping and harsh, the feeling of optimism was balanced, such a fantastic script to stage, to be able to empathise, to be able to understand motive, for what now we would wish would never exist.


The performances were convincing, the cast so talented, Tom Morton-Smith’s creation so immense, and maybe just maybe the bringing together of science and the arts will bring even more imaginations and potential to the fore.

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