Tom Morton-Smith – How I Came to Write ‘Oppenheimer’


Posted: 29/03/2015 18:52 huffingtonpost.co.uk

I grew up near a nuclear bunker. After a short drive into the countryside and up onto the moorland, my family would often picnic not too far from the Aspidistra transmitter tower on the Ashdown Forest. The site transmitted propaganda during World War II – purporting to be Nazi air traffic control in order to disrupt German bombing raids or posing as a German military radio station. During the Eighties the site was heavily reconfigured so as to act as a seat of regional government in the event of nuclear war. It was around this time that I wouldn’t have been sat too far away tucking into a jam sandwich and a sausage roll.

The nuclear bunker fascinated me. The threat of nuclear annihilation seemed an ever present theme in the culture I absorbed growing up – it was there in the origin stories of the Daleks and the Incredible Hulk, it was there in Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows, it was there in Threads. The thought that at any moment the Cold War could turn hot and we would either be vaporized, mutated or have to eek out an existence in a bunker constructed beneath the Hundred Acre Wood, filled me with a terrified fascination. Because, even though nuclear weapons inspired science-fiction, they were very much here in the real world also.

In 2007 I watched the BBC documentary Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives. It followed Mark Oliver Everett (known as E – the lead singer of rock band Eels) as he attempted to understand the work of his late father, theoretical physicist Hugh Everett III. I watched it because it was presented by the lead singer of a band I like, but it managed to ignite an interest in the science. I was working in a bookshop at the time so I picked up a couple of our bestselling titles from the Popular Science section: Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You by Marcus Chown and Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman! by Richard Feynman. I was now a full-blown physics nerd. I don’t have a particularly mathematical mind – unsurprisingly for a playwright, I tend to think in words – but the ideas and the characters and the stories in those books were massively inspiring.

In 2008 I wrote my play Uncertainty – a commission for the Latitude Festival. The brief was quite open, so of course I started writing about my new found passion. The play took ideas from quantum theory and turned them into human stories – a character who woke up one morning to find himself existing in two places at once, another who started to age more rapidly on moving to the top of a tower-block, another who refuses to open the cardboard box that contains the remains of his recently putdown cat (wishing to avoid the confirmation that the poor mog is dead). The play was well received by audiences and gave me the confidence to explore more physics in my writing.

On being invited to pitch an epic idea to the Royal Shakespeare Company, I decided on the story of J Robert Oppenheimer – the father of the atomic bomb. I had been introduced to him as a character through reading Feynman, and the fascination and dread with all things atomic that had started with those picnics by the bunker had come to the fore. The story of the Manhattan Project seemed to me an apposite subject matter for an RSC play – few things have impacted human civilization in quite the same way as the advent of nuclear power.

In Oppenheimer we have a flawed but brilliant individual struggling with his own power – he has always struck me as quite a Shakespearean figure. In rehearsal we have talked about Richard II, Macbeth, Hamlet and even King Lear. These are ideas on a large canvas, and if the task for writing for the RSC is to be inspired by the work of William Shakespeare, I can think of no more suitable subject matter than the complex and contradictory character of Robert Oppenheimer, or anything grander or more terrifying than the invention of the atomic bomb.

Oppenheimer is on at the Vaudeville Theatre, London.

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