(with some spoilers…)
I’m not a professional reviewer, but I thought to write something on it….
I was taking a look to Oliver’s CV on his agents’ site last year and I noticed they added his new role in “Oppenheimer“. So I wanted to see him on stage, of course, but I was curious to see how R.J. Oppenheimer and his circle could have been portrayed in theatre, too.
I feared I wouldn’t be able to go to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see it when, fortunately, the production was transferred to London.
“Oppenheimer” puts together the scientist’s private life with moments where he’s giving lessons to his students or he’s building the atomic bomb. Playwright Tom Morton-Smith created a beautiful play with brilliant dialogues, angst, Hamletic doubts, irony, based on accurate historical research, under the brilliant direction by Angus Jackson and with an excellent work from the cast!
Oppenheimer was an ambitious brilliant man who loved parties, women and being the mentor of his students, but wasn’t able to create deep relationships with people around him. At some point, he chooses to help his own career, denying his Communist belief and even blaming the other people for being too open about their political ideas.
Before becoming the “destroyers of worlds”, Oppenheimer and his colleagues thought that atomic bomb was the right way to free the world from nazifascism and end the war. And yet, somebody were afraid of using it. There’s a scene where Wilson makes a heartfelt appeal against the use of the bomb on Japan, finding it cruel and useless after Hitler died. Oppenheimer himself realizes what he helped to create…
There’s a terrific scene, when they make the final test for the explosion and some characters are lying on the ground, watching the experiment from far, when suddenly the bomb explodes and everybody start a tribal dance under its red light, raising their arms to the bomb like if it was a god, and declaring one by one their statements.
The set design is simple but effective, just few elements are enough to recreate the locations, while the colorful costumes and music written by Grant Olding for the play are in perfect ‘40s style.
The cast is composed of twenty talented actors. These are definitely my favorites:
Oliver Johnstone (Giovanni Rossi Lomanitz) plays the teenager student, a gentle cheerful boy who, at a young age, is already in the circle of students who work side by side with the scientist, but he’s also the most damaged by the betrayal of Oppenheimer. At the beginning, he shows passion for what Oppenheimer is teaching him, he takes part to the party at his house and we see that they’re great friends. Then he becomes more and more upset finding out that he’s out of the project, until the final scene when he returns from war having nothing but a Halloween uniform and begs his old mate to write him a recommendation: when his friend refuses to help him, suddenly with warm voice he starts to sing the “Internationale” to remind Oppenheimer about their political beliefs and this is a very touching moment. Oliver is perfect for the role. I had great expectations on him and I was right. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
John Heffernan (J Robert Oppenheimer) portrays a character who would make you stand in awe in real life, making him human. He’s carried from one scene to another almost in a trance: one moment he’s talking to a General of the US Army, the other moment he hears his daughter crying but doesn’t know what to do with her. He gives to his character a strong personality, but shows tenderness and irony, too, in scenes with Jean or when tries to sing a song to his baby girl. I like when he tells the tale of the chessboard to explain the chain reaction, jumping from one point to another! And he even turned left-handed for the role! He’s a performer of great sensitivity and dedication.
Catherine Steadman (Jean Tatlock) a wonderful actress who lights up the stage just being there, spreading joy and enthusiasm, dancing on the top of a piano or chatting with people. She plays the lover of Oppenheimer, who shares his political opinions and collects money for the victims of the Spanish Civil War. We feel her pain when she realizes that their ideals are utopian and there’s the most heartbreaking scene which she plays with great tenderness and sensitiveness. I hope she continues to make theatre, despite she’s getting attention thanks to some screen roles.
Sandy Foster and Jamie Wilkes (Charlotte and Bob Serber), a true force of nature when they’re on stage, they play a real married couple in the circle of Oppenheimer and some of the funniest scenes of the play, like when they try their hand at espionage and shout their secret at the audience. I love when Foster holds the baby and sings to her and is upset when Oppie wants to give her away. Wilkes plays Einstein, too, using a funny German accent. And yet he left me upset when, as Bob, started to talk with enthusiasm about the effects of the atomic bomb on the bodies of the victims, but suddenly realized what they had done. I guess to see them again soon playing other brilliant roles!
Jack Holden (Robert Wilson), another student of Oppenheimer, is a treat to watch for how he moves on stage and for the slightly shrill voice he gives to his character. I find nice how, while he was explaining to the audience the stages of research, he was moving his left hand nervously, maybe a detail he studied accurately! He makes you feel really sorry when he tries to convince people and then Oppenheimer about the pointlessness in using the bomb. He is in one of the funniest scenes, too, when he drinks egg and milk after the booze, making the audience laughing out loud! I think he could be great in a comedy!
Ben Allen (Edward Teller) plays the Hungarian scientist, nervous and unsatisfied, looking funny, also due to his accent that mixes together English and Hungarian. His best moment to me is when he sits at the piano playing music and talking about his Hungary, he’s exhilarating. A great performance! Please more of them!
Bradley Hall (Klaus Fuchs / Richard Harrison / Soldier 1 / Military Policeman) is another brilliant actor, who plays multiple roles, he’s in my very favorite funny scene (when Oppenheimer talks to him at the telephone) and one of the most moving (when he says his family died).
Barney Fitzpatrick (Little Boy) is a young actor with a strong determination already, he got a good stage presence and a loud voice that makes a convincing American accent. His character is the real surprise of the show, I love when he comes out of the bomb!
But the others worth a mention, too:
Thomasin Rand (Puening Kitty Harrison, wife of JR Oppenheimer)
Michael Grady-Hall (Frank Oppenheimer, brother of Robert)
Hedydd Dylan (Jackie Oppenheimer, wife of Frank)
Ross Armstrong (Haakon Chevalier and Richard Feynman)
Daniel Boyd (Joe Weinberg and Tibbets)
Vincent Carmichael (Kenneth Nichols)
Laura Cubitt (Ruth Tolman and Waitress)
William Gaminara (General Leslie Groves)
Andrew Langtree (Peer Da Silva)
Tom McCall (Hans Bethe)
Toby Webster (Luis Alvarez / Doctor)
My favorite dramatic moments with them:
- Oppie looking lost from one domestic scene to another working on the bomb
- Kitty feeling broken after having given birth
- Klaus Fuchs saying his family died
- Haakon Chevalier interrogation after Oppie’s betrayal
- Frank disappointed by his brother
- Lomanitz realizing he’s the only one not leaving for the base
- Changes in Oppie’s behavior regarding people around him when he joins the Army
- Oppie meets Little Boy playing with a ball
- Jean speech to Oppie, realizing their ideals are utopian
- Jean’s suicide, especially when she talks about her father
- Frank feeling sorry about Jean, holding up his brother while he’s having a panic attack
- Oppie asking Charlotte Serber if she wants to adopt his daughter
- Oppie singing to his baby girl
- The explosion of the bomb, with rays that comes out of it, instead of the mushroom cloud
- Cast dancing under the bomb, like if it was a god
- Wilson praying: “Can we undo it, please?…”
- Little Boy coming out of bomb and speaking
- Bob explaining the effects of the bomb with enthusiasm, but suddenly understands what they did
- Lomanitz can’t find a job after the war and desperately begs Oppie for support
- The passionate, desperate monologue of Oppie at the end…stunning!
My favorite funny moments:
- The funding party with people dancing and getting drunk
- People writing formulas on the pavement in pauses
- When Jean asks the age of the students, but refuses to say hers
- Jean sings for Oppie taking off her shirt, but he tries to pull her out of his house
- The funny Hungarian and German accents
- Teller explains Hungary
- The explanation of the periodic table
- When Oppie tells the story of the chessboard and grains
- The students asking autograph to Professor Bethe
- Kitty trying to seduce Oppie and talking about her husband
- The scene at the telephone between Oppie and Harrison that ends with “Congratulations!”
- Singer singing some nice songs during the interval
- Serber and Wilson pointing at me and applauding me saying: “…and hey, you’ll kill everyone in the room…well done.” (when I was sitting in the front row, I’m still blushing but I had fun)
- When General Leslie Groves and then Oppie show to be men of command
- When Jackie says: “Hello Jackie, good to see you Jackie…”
- Soldiers building the base and singing
- Da Silva shooting the snake
- Oppie gives the banana bread to the soldier
- Bob Serber making stretches
- The Serbers trying to be spies and screaming at the audience: “Electric rockets!”
- Weinberg drunk, shouting at the waitress
- Wilson taking egg and milk after the booze
I’m so happy I had the occasion to see it!
The play is still on at the Vaudeville Theatre until May 23.