Last time I saw Oppenheimer was the last performance in the Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. This was on the Swan’s thrust stage and when I left the theatre, the stage was covered in chalk and daffodils. Here was another transfer from Stratford that has moved from a thrust to a proscenium arch stage, and having loved the production, I was curious to see how it would work in a West End theatre.
A piano and a blackboard are juxtaposed on stage, and in many ways these two props symbolise the structure of Tom Morton-Smith’s narrative. The staging moves between a lecture and the social world of the characters. The play starts with a party and later in the play there is a grotesque reflection of this as the cast dance in the lights and night of the atomic bomb.
John Heffernan is a truly amazing actor. He is enchanting, and emotional, while at the same he can use his whole physique to seem menacing. At times, he seems to stoop towers down with an arch of his head, which felt like Goya’s ‘Saturn Devouring His Son’, and then he can follow that by seeming to be so vulnerable with a slight tilt of his head. He could merge into the background and then come to the front of the stage and seduce the audience. I felt that Heffernan has the ability to look like he is looking me right in the eye, as if speaking directly do me. I am sure all the audience members felt the same.
Of course coming to the very front of the stage works well on a proscenium arch theatre, and the framing makes works well as well. What is lost is a little bit of the intimacy of the Swan Theatre, but I was sat near the front so I felt close to the action.
I couldn’t help thinking about comparisons with Shakespeare. Oppenheimer is a Cleopatra, often changing moods, as well as a ‘leader of men’. I was reminded of The Winter’s Tale, when Oppenheimer uncomfortably holds his baby daughter, and pushes her away wanting to give her up for adoption. Like Macbeth he becomes more and more solitary and seems to reject his wife. He is a leader in a History play, and like Henry V, he is able to condemn his friends when they won’t drop their politics.
There’s something of the Mad Men as well about this production. I felt myself shocked at watching a pregnant woman smoke and drink, and I shuddered to think people wanted to be at the test site of an atomic bomb. That knowing hindsight puts us as the audience in a strange position. In the performance they actually smoke real cigarettes according to a notice in the theatre.
Heffernan might shine in this production, but it’s a very strong ensemble cast as well. The use of multimedia and plain chalk are a nice combination to support the lecture motif. It was clear that at some point the bomb would come on stage, and there’s that sense of anticipation waiting for it to happen. The staging of the bomb is highly effective.
One of Oppenheimer’s final lines is chilling. He says “I feel like I’ve left a loaded gun in the playground”.
Yes Oppenheimer is human, and when he acknowledges that “I am lead lined. I am tungsten”, I felt he understands that he has transformed from human to Death.
The running time is 3 hours.
PS. Clearly, the RSC must have made sure this was more than a six-week run so it would qualify for an Olivier. Let’s hope this production wins one.