Sometimes, you read a book; see, or hear, a performance; a play; a symphony… and you know it will stay with you for ever: not just because of the greatness of the work itself; the commitment and skill of those producing, directing or acting it; not even because it gets to the heart of being human; and leaves an indelible mark on your heart… but that all these things align for a rare, thrilling, extended moment: to make something unique; something very special indeed.
Sat in front of a raging log fire, two hours after the end of Oppenheimer at the RSC, I am still shivering from the moment the Little Boy bomb was dropped; and then the Little Boy himself – the remarkably controlled and composed Fred Barry, in this case – describing its impact in such riveting, harrowing, matter-of-fact detail; its repercussions. (What a massive and imposing weight to be borne by such young shoulders.)
Then I talk of Hiroshima …
And of horrors that cannot be spoken …
That can only be smelt.
Watching Tom Morton-Smith’s new great historical play – of impressive, lyrical Shakespearian depth and breadth – coincidentally, exactly seventy years after the firebombing of Dresden, truly brings home the horrors that can be justified in the name of war. No judgments are made, here, though – but consequences are examined – and we watch the mesmerising John Heffernan, in a career-making inhabitation of the title rôle, gradually sink under the weight of his responsibility, his confidence and arrogance, his belief – in himself; and his work – waning visibly throughout the second act: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
The necessary atomic physics is beautifully and naturally integrated: not only in a series of interpolated ‘lecture’ scenes – “And if some aspect of the lecture doesn’t make sense, then perhaps we are getting somewhere…” – but in turning the whole stage-floor into a playing field of an all-encompassing mathematical blackboard, for the actors to work out their uncompromising formulas on: becoming more and more smothered in chalk… – especially useful during the quick-fire scene-changes and -overlaps that the drama commences with. Especial praise must be given to the lighting designer, Paul Anderson; the video designer, Karl Dixon; and Robert Innes Hopkins, the designer – their cumulative and cohesive work forms an intelligent, slick, and necessary foundation for the telling of the story; and, being in the gallery, I was fortunate enough to be able to have the best view of their shrewd mechanicals (as well as the single caption screen…).
Special mention must also go to Catherine Steadman for the Ophelia-esque rôle of Jean; but, to be honest, as great as the company is, Heffernan – who seems never to leave the stage – stands as a giant god amongst superhumans.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen an audience so rapt: all leaning forward in their seats; jointly immersed in some moving, deep silences… – and I don’t think anybody really wanted to applaud at the end. As great an event as it was that we had witnessed, had partaken in, clapping didn’t seem the right response. The eventual roaring and stamping was utterly deserved, though – in all quarters – and, if I can get another ticket, I will be back to put myself through the mill again; and to watch the cast open themselves up to the rawness and great pain that this work so perfectly captures.
By the way: that’s not to say that the evening isn’t infused with a neat vein of irony and humour. It’s just that the viciousness – the interplay of relationships; the objective of the Manhattan Project itself – eventually subsumes everything and everyone: “We’re all sons of bitches now [ripping] open the veins of God”.
There’s a shadow on his photograph on Tinian ’45
Smiling like a college boy who’s glad to be alive
But now he owns a factory and a store in Los Alamos
A wife called Beverly sells second hand Ford Motors
He may have taken pictures, been caught in Albuquerque
Flown in Great Artiste on a mushroom cloud
He may be a senator or a general or a turnkey
But I know he looks like Spencer Tracy now
And he cries all night…
And he may have been with Oppenheimer, shaken Einstein’s hand
Did we have to drop the bomb? You bet, to save this land
He was only taking pictures around the critical mass
While the troops on Tinian island sang ‘Follow the bouncing ball’
He may have been a nationalist, a physicist or a pacifist
But he’s just taking pictures and he’ll do it anyhow
Well, I have seen that movie of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde
And I know he looks like Spencer Tracy now
And he cries all night…
Tears falling down the streets
And he cries all night…
Oh, he cries all night
– Deacon Blue: He looks like Spencer Tracy now