Oppenheimer (Swan Theatre, RSC)

Tom Morton Smith’s new play is a thought-provoking and intelligent examination of the creation of the A-bomb

'The play is certainly no dry science lesson': John Heffernan as J Robert Oppenheimer
'Controlled and compelling': John Heffernan as J Robert Oppenheimer
© Keith Pattison

Bringing nuclear physics to life on stage is a challenge for any creative team. It is the sort of dry topic that can easily overwhelm an audience – and it is to the credit of the entire cast and crew of the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Tom Morton-Smith's new play that the science of the creation of the first atomic weapons is clear, entertaining and absolutely compelling.

The play is ambitious – combining as it does the personal stories of Robert Oppenheimer and his colleagues with philosophical and political examinations of the issues around the creation and use of nuclear weapons. On the whole, it is very successful. Only occasionally do you get a feeling that Morton-Smith's careful research is being presented to you, rather than being woven more tightly into the fabric of the play.

Angus Jackson's direction keeps the action moving with great energy and his clear handling of the different strands of the text means that the audience is never left behind.

This being said, there are two sections in the second half which seem at odds with the rest of the production – which may well be the effect Jackson was aiming at but they still sit very uneasily with the surrounding scenes. These scenes bring to the stage recreations of the bombs themselves – in undeniably creative and striking ways – but I am far from convinced they represent the best way of making those points to the audience.

There are, thankfully, enough brilliant touches throughout the production that these two moments do not undermine the success of the production as a whole. The cast are performing on a giant chalk board and frequently use this to work out complex equations or draw diagrams to illustrate their points. This is enhanced at key moments with projection and animation – a simple but highly effective device. Add in to this some excellent live music and you have some great theatricality.

Central to the success or failure of the enterprise is John Heffernan's performance as Oppenheimer. He captures the inner complexity of the man to perfection – restrained at times, bursting with boyish enthusiasm at others and only occasionally allowing his emotions to emerge. It's controlled and compelling work.

As with other recent RSC productions, the ensemble work is excellent. Jamie Wilkes and Sandy Foster as the Serbers make particularly striking contributions as Oppenheimer's closest friends and colleagues.

The story of Oppenheimer and the development of the A-bomb is one that is more usually told through documentary. This is an inventive and interesting attempt to reclaim that story for the stage. And whilst there are flaws in both script and production, it is absolutely worth the attention of audience members. This is thought-provoking, intelligent theatremaking.

Oppenheimer continues in the RSC Swan Theatre to 7 March 2015. Read writer Tom Morton-Smith's blog on creating the play.