This is the Oppenheimer bio-play to end all Oppenheimer bio-plays. Even if exhaustive ultimately becomes exhausting, Tom Morton-Smith has put together a towering three hours in “Oppenheimer,” folding a vast array of ideas into the figure of J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb: discovery against destruction, pragmatism or principle, duty over happiness. In the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production, the play hands John Heffernan, one of Britain’s best young actors, a role to match his talent, as the American physicist grapples — devastatingly — with the enormity and inevitability of his part in history.
What Morton-Smith doesn’t quite do is harness all that into an unstoppable, tragic chain reaction. Rather than hone in on Oppenheimer, Morton-Smith throws more and more material into the mix. We hear from the pilot about to take off for Japan; from the scientist on the ground afterwards, measuring the “fatty stains collecting ash and dust;” even — bizarrely — from the bomb itself, Little Boy (played by a child). All of it’s fascinating, all awful and beautiful at once, but it adds drag and detracts from Oppenheimer himself.
A pity, because the physicist’s life and work, and their implications, are superbly realized in plot, performance and Angus Jackson’s bracing production. Morton-Smith starts pre-war, with Oppie, as he’s affectionately known, head of Berkeley’s left-leaning physics department. Realising the potential of nuclear fission to create a new kind of weapon, and that the Nazis likely have a headstart, he presses a team into military service. Possibility, he reasons, entails inevitability. Better us than them.
Morton-Smith plunges us into the thick of that decision. Oppenheimer’s drive for discovery, his ego as a scientist, sits at odds with the devastation he knows it will reap. He throws off his socialism, to avoid suspicion with army superiors, and adopts, then rejects, a military uniform, thus owning his actions in full. In his private life, his wife Kitty (Thomasin Rand) sinks into post-natal depression and his cheery first love Jean (Catherine Steadman) commits suicide.
Yet, even when the urgency falls away, with the Germans far behind, then surrendering, Oppenheimer pushes on, convinced that this necessary evil will eradicate war once and for all. As he stands watching the desert tests in blacked out goggles, his blindness is all too apparent.
In the process, Heffernan’s Oppenheimer, increasingly clouded in cigarette smoke, slowly turns his back on the world. By the end, pursed smile long-gone, eyes fixed on the horizon, he seems to have been hollowed out entirely; every bit the measure of Oppenheimer’s infamous scriptural citation, “I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”
True, these ideas feel well-rehearsed, no matter how eloquently put, but with so many to mull in such quick succession, all distilled into a crisp, elegant Robert Innes Hopkins design, that’ hardly matters. Morton-Smith makes one addition: a case for roundedness, that progress is nothing without people, without art and love, faith and dancing. His play is a plea for humanity.