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The RSC's play about the father of the atomic bomb is a blast from start to finish.
Transferring from Stratford on a mushroom cloud of acclaim, the RSC’s ‘Oppenheimer’ lives up to the hype.
A freewheeling bio-drama about J Robert Oppenheimer, the mastermind of the atomic bomb, Tom Morton-Smith’s epic new play isn’t formally groundbreaking, but it’s ambitious in the very best way. Bolstered by the RSC’s formidable resources, the three-hour ‘Oppenheimer’ is unashamedly vast, its huge cast relating not only the story of the atomic bomb, but also the lives and loves of the left-leaning intellectuals who made it, while addressing the rise and fall of communism in twentieth-century America.
At the centre of Angus Jackson’s production is a quite remarkable performance from John Heffernan, one of our best and most underrated actors. Baggily suited, unflappable and a hit with the ladies, Heffernan’s Oppenheimer is no clichéd tortured genius. But as the play wears on, it becomes apparent that his detachment from the world isn’t merely an affectation, as he throws more and more of his old self – ideals, attachments – on the pyre of his extraordinary work.
Jackson’s pacy production juxtaposes scenes of bright young things liquoring it up with zippy lecture-style sequences in which Oppenheimer’s peers explain the science behind the A-bomb. What’s notable is that Oppenheimer himself does little lab work; rather, he is midwife to a terrible, destructive idea. An army of fractious geniuses work first with him then – as government resources are piled into the Manhattan Project – under him. But it is Oppenheimer who steadies the ship, who pulls the bomb into being by sheer force of will: it is his determination to ‘spill the veins of God’ that keeps the project on track even after the defeat of Germany, after it becomes apparent that no other nation has come close to developing it, and after his men start to question why it must be dropped on Japan.
With it's undercurrent of soapy melodrama, Jackson’s jazz-soaked, somewhat ‘Enron’-tinged production is a hoot from start to finish (all stage bombs should be depicted as disco balls). But it really delivers its payload in its final phase, as Oppenheimer finally rejects his humanity in favour of doing something truly inhuman to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If ‘Oppenheimer’ humanises the story of the bomb, then it also humanises those it killed, clawing them back from statistic to tragedy.
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