It’s been over four years since I first saw a wonderful young actor on stage in the National Theatre’s After The Dance – that actor was John Heffernan, whose vulnerable and moving performance made him an actor I knew I had to keep an eye on. John has continued to build up an impressive stage career, from Emperor & Galilean, The Hothouse, the wonderful lead in Edward II and now the lead in the RSC’s new play by Tom Morton-Smith about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the race to build the first nuclear bomb in the 1940s.
Although World War II was covered extensively in school, I still felt I knew very little about this aspect of the war and was incredibly interested to learn more about it through the production. Oppenheimer tells the story of a group of scientists, led by Oppenheimer, who work together as part of the American military on a secret project to build an atomic weapon. The Manhattan Project, as it was known, was seen as a race against the Germans, who it was believed were also trying to create such a weapon.
The play wonderfully lays out what is at stake and who these important scientists were, as well as giving an insight in to the aftermath of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A three hour play about history and science may sound like a dry prospect to some, but don’t be put off by any preconceptions. Yes, there is science in this play (how could there not be?!), but Tom Morton-Smith’s play delivers this in an engaging, interesting and entertaining way and the pace of the play keeps the story moving to ensure you are always paying attention.
The staging is also brilliantly executed. I saw the production at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon and all of the fairly small stage was utilised for full effect. I loved moments where scenes zipped from one to the next, the change marked simply by actors dropping to the floor to start frantically scribbling equations in chalk on the stage as others moved to the next scene around them. Certain, more complicated aspects of the science are also delivered as if as part of a lecture, which again works well in connecting with the audience. The scene in which the first desert test of such a weapon takes place is also incredibly effective and I am certain the production will transition on to the proscenium stage of the Vaudeville without a problem.
The ensemble cast here is excellent, something I have grown to expect from an RSC production and I certainly wasn’t disappointed here. The group of scientists feel well rounded, interesting and have a great chemistry together. I particularly liked Ben Allen, who plays Edward Teller, a Hungarian physicist, who has some lovely side moments to the audience. It isn’t only the men here playing interesting characters, as we also get to see Oppenheimer with the two women of his life, his wife Kitty Puening Harrison (Thomasin Rand) and his former mistress, the wild Jean Tatlock (Catherine Steadman), whose Communist leanings prove less than ideal during his time working with the U.S. government. Indeed we see how Oppenheimer moves from Communist leanings to distancing himself from such ideals and from those who he knows hold them, including his own brother.
Despite such a wonderful group of actors bringing this play to life so effectively, this production belongs to John Heffernan. He is perfect as “Oppie”, conveying his intelligence, and arrogance, as well as his growing sadness as the play moves on. He isn’t a hugely likeable character, cheating on his wife for example, but you can’t help but admire him and his commitment to the work and I did find myself liking him despite his flaws. Towards the end of the play, once the war is over, bombs having been dropped on Japan with such horrifying results, as he talks about leaving a loaded gun in a playground, you genuinely feel his conflicted emotions. He clearly continues to believe strongly in the work, why it was necessary and its long term contribution to the world, while also feeling deep sadness too and his emotional scenes as the play draws to its close are truly brilliant. This is a superb actor at the top of his game in a role that allows him to truly shine.
I would never have thought this would have been a play that would have appealed to me but it’s brought to life in a way that is engaging and draws you in, which is only made more enjoyable by the truly superb performance by Mr Heffernan. I am sure this will bring him to the attention of many more people and I’m sure he’ll continue to impress in many more productions to come. It’s wonderful that Oppenheimer is transferring to the West End, enabling a wider audience to see it. If you can nab a ticket, I’d definitely recommend it.
Oppenheimer transfers to the Vaudeville Theatre in London from 27th March – 23rd May 2015. More information about the play and ticket availability can be found on the RSC’s Oppenheimer webpage here.