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Guest Blog: 'Oppenheimer's is a story we should all know better'

Tom Morton-Smith's new play at the RSC centres on the physicist credited as being the 'father of the atomic bomb'

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'It's complex, chaotic and complicated - but it's also joyous, incredible and terrifying': The cast of Oppenheimer
© Keith Pattison

With a historical play like Oppenheimer, exposition can be a killer. Not only do the location and the setting have to be communicated, but also the political temperature and the specifics of how the action of the play marries to the timeline of the Second World War. Assumptions have to be made about the audience's level of knowledge - for example the characters start talking about Pearl Harbor and I'm confident that they know what's being talked about, whereas something such as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact might need a little more unpacking.

In a play that tackles big themes and big story any shortcuts in settings of time and place are welcome. Music can be a huge help here. It doesn't take much - a brush on a snare drum, a double bass, a trumpet - and suddenly you've conjured a very specific time and place. Throw in a couple of dancers with some lindy-hop moves and the audience is more than halfway there.

The play is full of songs contemporary to the time - a spot of Woody Guthrie as they talk about the Spanish Civil War, some Inkspots, some big band propaganda tunes - all of which help to anchor the story even though the characters might be talking about things the audience aren't so familiar with - for example the science.

There's no way of telling the story of the atom bomb without getting into the science of it. It's important to understand why building one is difficult, why it's not something you could do in your front room - the obstacles these scientists had to overcome, the reasons for its completion being such an achievement.

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

The key to communicating difficult ideas is enthusiasm - it's there in the best scientific communicators. It's in Brian Cox's wide-eyed wonder, in Johnny Ball's grinning joy, in Carl Sagan's awe. The greatest popularisers of science are those whose enthusiasm is infectious. If Jim al-Khalili is rhapsodising about quantum physics it's hard not to get swept up.

It was massively helpful whenever we had Professor David Wark (our show's scientific advisor) visit the rehearsal room. His passion for particle physics was there for all to see, and it's been great to watch as the cast have run with it and fed that enthusiasm back into their performance. When Professor Wark brought in a signed copy of Richard Feynman's 1985 book QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter the excitement in the room was palpable - and most of the cast hadn't heard of Feynman until the week before.

The play is certainly no dry science lesson and the science is very much tethered to the story - you follow it because you understand what it means to the characters and to the characters' situation. Half an hour after the show ends you might not know a proton from an electron but that won't matter, you'll have understood the story.

The world of Oppenheimer is one of music, cocktail parties, radical politics, betrayal, love and atomic theory. It's complex, chaotic and complicated - but it's also joyous, incredible and terrifying. It's a story we should all know better.

Oppenheimer opens on Thursday (22 January, previews from 15 January) in the Royal Shakespeare Company's Swan Theatre, and runs until 7 March 2015