Science Play of the Day: The Earthworks

The Earthworks by Tom Morton Smith takes place in a hotel in Geneva on the eve of the switch on of the Large Hadron Collider.

‘Two strangers – a journalist and a scientist – share their experience of loss and hope in a funny but deeply touching one-act play.’ -Playtext published by Oberon Books.

First performed at the RSC Mischief Festival at Stratford-upon-Avon in May 2017.

You’re one of those ‘because the sun’s going to expand and swallow the earth in four billion years…everything is therefore meaningless’ kind of people. Leave the Ladybird Book of Nihilism on the shelf and tell me something real.

Clare to Fritojof, The Earthworks, Scene 5

The Earthworks

by Tom Morton-Smtih
(2017)

'The universe doesn't care if we know how it works.'
https://www.oberonbooks.com/making-mischief-two-radical-new-plays-3258.html

Past productions listed on sci-stage.com

May 2017, Royal Shakespeare Company, Studio Theatre @ The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK

The Earthworks on sci-stage.com

Certain to Please? – The Uncertainty Principle in Theatre 2017 November 2017

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Certain to Please? – The Uncertainty Principle in Theatre 2017

‘The Uncertainty Principle’ is the subtitle of Simon Stephens’ new play Heisenberg, currently running at Wyndham’s Theatre in London. But this is not the only time the principle has been explored on stage during 2017…

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Kenneth Cranham and Anne-Marie Duff in Heisenberg: the uncertainty principle at Wyndham’s Theatre

Much like Simon Stephens’ other new play this year, Nuclear War, the title of Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle is not particularly indicative of the content. Heisenberg is a touching romantic comedy in which the uncertainty principle makes only the loosest of appearances. This presents no difficulty in itself – artists are of course entirely entitled to use whatever ideas they choose as a title for their work. However, perhaps it indicates something about the cultural climate in 2017 that producers can confidently borrow an otherwise esoteric scientific concept to market a main stream West End production.

Simon Rouse as The Professor in Insignificance at the Arcola Theatre. Photo: Alex Brenner

The Royal Court Theatre, which produced Stephens’ Nuclear War, also premiered Lucy Kirkwood’s new work The Children earlier in the year. This was a dark and reflective piece about the legacy of three retired nuclear scientists of the baby boomer generation. As thoughtful as The Children was, it was surely Lucy Kirkwood’s other major new work Mosquitoes at the National Theatre that was arguably the piece of standout science theatre in 2017.

Mosquitoes is set at the time of the switch-on of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in 2008. A play that includes a character called ‘The Boson’ immediately rings alarm bells over the risk of didactic dialogue and some superficially inserted science. Far from it, Mosquitoes delivered an absorbing and funny family drama with complex three-dimensional characters that we come to care deeply about. The scientific setting sits very comfortably within the play, complementing but not dominating the narrative. It is the tale of two sisters, Alice – a staff scientist at CERN (played by Olivia Williams) – and Jenny, her troubled and arguably naïve sister (Olivia Colman). Contrary to Alice’s high minded approach, Jenny has developed her own brand of tabloid-style scepticism and fact-free opinion that results in difficult consequences for her and her family. As a politician famously once said, ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’.

A scene from Mosquitoes at the National Theatre. Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenburg

Mosquitoes also features two relatable teenage characters who are grappling with their sense of place – both literal place (displaced from England to Geneva) and virtual (negotiating the brave new Snapchat world). What Kirkwood and director Rufus Norris achieved with Mosquitoes is the rare combination of a full length two-act play that draws heavily on science and yet comfortably stands alone as an enjoyable, relevant and probing piece of theatre.

It is the character of the sisters’ mother Karen (Amanda Boxer), a retired Cambridge scientist herself, who brings up the uncertainty principle in the form a joke told to her daughter (partially to alienate Colman’s less science-savvy character). The principle (and the joke) is never overtly explained for the benefit of the audience. If we are also to feel alienated rather than enlightened is something that we are left to decide for ourselves, much to the credit of the writer.

Alice Bailey Johnson as The Actress in Insignificance. Photo: Alex Brenner

Mosquitoes was not the only new play this year set around the opening of the LHC. The Royal Shakespeare company took this on as part of their Mischief Festival in the spring when Tom Morton-Smith (Oppenheimer 2015) delivered a one-act piece for ‘The Other Place’ studio theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The Earthworks charts an encounter between a science journalist and a postdoc researcher, also on the eve of the LHC switch-on. It’s a very neat little piece (on a similarly human scale to some of Nick Payne’s one act plays) with some fun science inserted (at one point non-Newtonian fluids are demonstrated live on stage with custard borrowed from the kitchen of an up-market hotel). The Earthworks offers a valuable new perspective that other ‘science plays’ have not yet really approached – a sense of the potential conflict between the need for click-friendly news nuggets to sustain modern online media and the more considered, often-long term nature of scientific research. There was plenty of great material to work with here and The Earthworks adds a great deal to the genre. However, towards the end of the play, real science is conflated with (albeit plausible) science fiction. This worked well to advance the narrative in a moving way, but it felt slightly disappointing to mix fact and (near) fiction in the same piece given that there is already so much great real science in the play.

olivia_colman_in_mosquitoes_by_lucy_kirkwood_image_by_brinkhoffmogenburg
Olivia Coleman in Mosquitoes. Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenburg

The confusion of fact and fiction is central to Terry Johnson’s 1982 play Insignificance, currently enjoying a revival at The Arcola Theatre in Dalston. The Professor, The Actress, The Senator and The Ball Player all meet in a fantasy encounter in a 1950s Manhattan hotel room. The contrivance works because the characters (although never named) are of course Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe McCarthy and Jo DiMaggio. It’s a fun and at times sinister piece with some great casting by director David Mercatali. The gentle Einstein (Simon Rouse), a flighty but vulnerable Monroe (Alice Bailey Johnson) and an oafish DiMaggio (Oliver Hembrough) spar and with each other and with the ruthless Senator McCarthy (Tom Mannio). Since Einstein is in nearly every scene it comes as no surprise that science makes an appearance. However it is in fact Monroe who gives a breathless and accurate summary of the principles of special relativity to The Professor in the first act, before the play goes on to explore some its darker themes.

Kenneth Cranham and Anne-Marie Duff in Heisenberg: the uncertainty principle. Photo: Elliot and Harper

Shortly before the end of Insignificance Einstein makes a passing reference to the uncertainty principle. It drew a muffled but knowing response from members of the audience, who were perhaps conscious that this is not the only ticket in town with a bit of exposure to this particular piece of science.

It was of course nearly 20 years ago that Michael Frayn so successfully wove the uncertainty principle seamlessly into the structure of Copenhagen at the National Theatre. It seems almost churlish to note here that none of the recent productions discussed above manage to replicate that sophistication. However, the prevalence of the uncertainty principle in 2017 demonstrates that audiences are increasingly comfortable to engage with science in a theatrical setting. And that seems to be one principle worth pursuing.

Insignificance runs at the Arcola Theatre until 18th November 2017

Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle is at Wyndham’s Theatre until 6th January 2018

Highlights from a Year of Science in Theatre 2015

In a year in which high-profile productions such as Photograph 51 and Oppenheimer attracted considerable attention for bringing science to the stage, 2015 was also a year in which smaller gems such as Islington Community Theatre’s Brainstorm shone.

Nicole Kidman, who plays Rosalind Franklin in Photograph 51. Photo: Marc Brenner
Nicole Kidman played Rosalind Franklin in Photograph 51. Photo: Marc Brenner

It was arguably the star appeal of Nicole Kidman rather than the play that drew audiences to the Noel Coward Theatre in September to see Anna Zeigler’s Photograph 51. However, those who saw Kidman’s portrayal of Rosalind Franklin (for which she received an Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Actress) in Michael Grandage’s production saw a theatrical depiction of an intriguing period in the history of science. Science Centre Stage spoke to Edward Bennett, who played Nobel prize wining biophysicist Francis Crick in the production, about his approach to playing a real-life character and visiting the archives at Kings College London. Photograph 51 is currently nominated for best new play in the What’s On Stage Awards (despite first being performed in the USA in 2007).

When Tom Morton-Smith’s play Oppenheimer opened at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre at the beginning of the year, its subsequent success was sufficient to lead to a West End transfer. Commuters in London encountered hundreds of posters featuring John Heffernan as J. Robert Oppenheimer promoting the play at the Vaudeville Theatre where it played for two months. The Institute of Physics and Graham Farmelo arranged a panel discussion at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon in which the playwright, director Angus Jackson, physicist Prof. Frank Close, science journalist Alok Jha and former Times literary editor Erica Wagner discussed the themes of the play in an event chaired by deputy artistic director of the RSC Erica Whyman.

Another panel discussion in May at the Royal Society, also chaired by Erica Whyman, saw Tom Morton-Smith discuss Oppenheimer with Prof. Marcus du Sautoy, Prof. John Barrow and science-theatre scholar Prof. Kirsten Shepherd-Barr (whose new book Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett was published by Columbia University Press in 2015).

Although Oppenheimer and Photograph 51 offered the highest profile portrayals of scientists in mainstream theatre last year, there were also some very strong smaller scale performances bringing together science and theatre, particularly generated by collaborations between scientists, theatre makers and writers.

Brainstorm was developed with support from the Wellcome Trust
Brainstorm was developed by Islington Community Theatre with support from the Wellcome Trust

An undoubted highlight of 2015 was Brainstorm, Islington Community Theatre’s uplifting and energetic piece exploration of the neuroscience of the teenage brain. It was performed by 10 teenagers with support from the Wellcome Trust and was devised by the cast with guidance from UCL neuroscientists Prof. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Katie Mills and directed by Ned Glasier. A hugely successful opening run at the small Park Theatre in January led to a well-deserved transfer to the National Theatre’s temporary theatre space in the summer. Islington Community Theatre then took part in Battersea Arts Centre’s Live From Television Centre project, resulting in a 30-minute version of Brainstorm becoming available on BBC iPlayer, substantially widening the audience it reached. Brainstorm will return to the National Theatre in 2016.

Harry Lister Smith Photo: Richard Davenport
Harry Lister Smith in Metta Theatre’s Mouthful Photo: Richard Davenport

Another intriguing production benefiting from Wellcome Trust support in 2015 was Metta Theatres’ Mouthful, in which international playwrights were paired with scientists to produce six short plays about the global food crisis. The result was a thought provoking and engaging production at London’s Trafalgar Studios. Science Centre Stage spoke to Metta Theatre’s artistic director Poppy Burton-Morgan about the development process behind Mouthful and how the scientists and writers worked together to create the plays.

Menagerie Theatre also continued their strong programme of pairing academics and writers in their What’s Up Doc? series for the 2015 Hotbed Festival in Cambridge. Pictures of You was writer Craig Baxter’s latest collaboration with Dr. Martina Di Simplicio of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge University, in which mental imagery was explored in a short play that was subsequently had a short run at London’s Soho Theatre.

That Is All You Need To Know - Idle Motion
That Is All You Need To Know – Idle Motion

There was barely space to swing Alan Turing’s bicycle in the upstairs space at the Arts Theatre (though they tried) as The Hope Theatre’s performed Snoo Wilson’s Lovesong of the Electric Bear in a quirky and offbeat take on the life of Alan Turing directed by Matthew Parker. Meanwhile, Turing also featured in That Is All You Need To Know at the New Diorama Theatre as Idle Motion performed their Bletchley Park inspired piece of remarkable devised physical theatre for the last ever time.

A NUMBER by Churchhill,         , Writer - Caryl Churchill, Director - Michael Longhurst, Designer - Tom Scutt, Lighting - Lee Curran, The Young Vic Theatre, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/

At the peripheries of the science-theatre genre lie certain plays presenting dystopic but feasible near-future scenarios. In 2015 the Royal Court Theatre’s production of Jennifer Haley’s The Nether asked pressing questions about the boundaries between the online world and reality during a 12 week run at the Duke of York’s Theatre. The Young Vic Theatre played host to Southampton Nuffield’s revival of Caryl Churchill’s A Number, exploring the possible consequences of where human cloning could take us. Science Centre Stage spoke to director Michael Longhurst about the background to the play and how he and Tom Scutt worked together on the striking set design.

Nick Payne's Constellations had a UK Tour in 2015
Nick Payne’s Constellations had a UK Tour in 2015

The inestimable Tom Stoppard topped and tailed the year with his new neuroscience-inspired play The Hard Problem opening at the National Theatre in January and a revival of the little-performed Hapgood at Hampstead Theatre in December. Hapgood is a spy-thriller drawing on ideas from quantum physics which apparently baffled many who saw the original production in 1988. However, Stoppard has revised the play several times since, including an updated version for the Hampstead Theatre that runs until 23rd January 2016.

The Hard Problem will have its USA premiere from 6th January 2016 at he Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia. Stoppard discussed the play with philosopher David Chalmers, who first coined the term the ‘hard problem’ to address the question of consciousness, on stage recently ahead of the new production.

January 2015 saw the death of scientist and playwright Carl Djerassi at the age of 91. Djerassi’s writing about the relationship between science and theatre was extensive and he wrote many plays, including Insufficiency and Oxygen (with Roald Hoffmann) each constructed around some aspect of science. Despite at times being controversial, and with mixed reactions to his plays, his approach was spirited and there is no doubt Djerassi contributed a great deal to the consideration of the place of science on the stage. Jenny Rohn wrote thoughtfully about her own interactions with Djerrassi in a piece for LabLit in March.

Lisa Dillon as Elizabeth Haploid at the Hampstead Theatre until 23rd January
Lisa Dillon as Elizabeth Hapgood at the Hampstead Theatre until 23rd January

If 2015 was a strong year for science in theatre then 2016 also has some interesting prospects in store. A new play by Nick Payne for the Donmar Warehouse opens in April. The Royal Shakespeare Company will apply their considerable resources and talents to a new version of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, arguably one of the early depictions of a scientist in theatre. But if Photograph 51, Oppenheimer and The Hard Problem were some of the mainstream successes of 2015, it is the smaller gems that may also be most worth seeking out in 2016.

Q&A with Director Michael Longhurst

Michael Longhurst has directed many critically acclaimed productions, including Nick Payne’s Constellations in the West End and Broadway. Longhurst is an Associate Director at Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre and his new version of Caryl Churchill’s A Number for Nuffield recently transferred to London’s Young Vic Theatre. Science Centre Stage spoke to Michael Longhurst about his views on science in theatre and on how he worked with designer Tom Scutt on the remarkable stage set for A Number.

Michael Longhurst
Michael Longhurst

A Number was first produced in 2002 at a time when cloning was very much in the public conscience (not least because of ‘Dolly the Sheep’). What stimulated you to direct A Number again now?

It’s a play that I had read at drama school and had fallen in love with at that moment. I think the line-by-line writing that Carol makes the scenes out of is extraordinary. I studied philosophy at university and I think the thematic ideas of the play are really interesting. They go beyond and above the idea of cloning and into the idea of personal identity, and beyond and above the idea of nature and nurture and into the idea of freewill and determinism. She is so erudite in packing in so many ideas into a very short, punchy play and it’s an incredibly exciting theatrical premise.

Science is a key enabler in understanding who we are, who we are now and who we are becoming.

Fundamentally, we watch an actor pretend to be more than one version of himself, which is absolutely the most basic part of acting and theatre. It allows us to access the idea of a clone with the same genetics but who behaves differently. I love the simplicity, theatricality and complexity of the ideas it draws on. We were looking for an exciting project for Southampton University (where The Nuffield is based). It has a lot of specialization in biomedicine, so we hoped that it would appeal to some of the audience there. I was working with designer Tom Scutt, who also designed Constellations, and we were excited about the design opportunity to really push a conceptual version of this play in how we staged it. The strength of reaction is one of the major factors that has brought it to life again and brought it into town (at the Young Vic).

A NUMBER by Churchhill , Writer - Caryl Churchill, Director - Michael Longhurst, Designer - Tom Scutt, Lighting - Lee Curran, The Young Vic Theatre, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/
John and Lex Shrapnel in A Number, Young Vic Theatre 2015, Credit: Johan Pehrsson

In rehearsals we were looking at the progress of the genetic world and interestingly as science advances there’s nothing that makes the play obsolete. The ideas that Caryl Churchill puts forward in the play are still pressing and they become more pertinent the more familiar we become with genetic advances and possibilities. Crudely, we haven’t yet cloned a human so the play’s not yet out of date. It is still a play that is asking- ‘what if ?’ The fact that we are more aware of the advances, such as being able to edit the human genome means that out idea of it as something that is in the dim and distant future in some dystopian world is being eroded. Our world is getting closer to this and I think that makes the ethical questions of the play present more pressing.

In developing the production did you talk to scientists in the similar manner to the way that you and Nick Payne did with Constellations?

Interestingly, the play never mentions the word cloning. The characters, certainly the clones, aren’t aware of this process. So in some sense it wasn’t something that the characters in the play necessarily understood. It was an opportunity that was offered to the father and that he benefits from and it’s a complete shock and surprise to the son. We did work in rehearsals to try to understand how cloning works, but actually we didn’t go out to meet scientists who are experts in their field because the characters themselves have a lay understanding of cloning, which we supplemented by research in the rehearsals.

A NUMBER by Churchhill,         , Writer - Caryl Churchill, Director - Michael Longhurst, Designer - Tom Scutt, Lighting - Lee Curran, The Young Vic Theatre, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/
John and Lex Shrapnel in A Number, Young Vic Theatre 2015, Credit: Johan Pehrsson

How do you go about the process of putting together ideas with stage designer Tom Scutt?

Whenever I enter a design process it feels like there’s what I call top-down and bottom-up work. Top down work asks what are the themes that we are trying to capture? How can we use metaphor? How can we create an environment that has an emotional resonance with what we’re trying to say about the play? And then there’s the practical stuff- the bottom-up stuff – which is what does the play need? A Number actually needs nothing. With two bodies and no props, it frees you from many stage constraints. We decided at Nuffield that we wanted to give the audience a new experience, so we created an installation. We weren’t doing a traditional proscenium arch production of it. We were allowed to play with capacity, and make it an incredibly intimate experience. Tom hit on the idea of using mirrors, which felt like he had very cleanly, profoundly and simply hit upon both the ideas of identity – who are we? – and the idea of a multiplicity of reflections. Often as a director your job is to have these thematic discussions with a designer, and then be brave when they offer you an exciting solution. In a piece of live theatre the actors and audience are sharing a space, and in this instance I put them behind a glass wall and used microphones. But I hope that in addition to the ideas of reflection and identity, it also gives the audience a feeling of watching an interrogation. It’s not dissimilar to when you go to a police line-up through a two-way mirror. I think what that does is tie into the ethical issues, the idea of responsibility, the idea of our agency, the idea of guilt, blame and consequence. I think that all of those were useful social ideas to bring up in a stage design.

Often as a director your job is to have these thematic discussions with a designer, and then be brave when they offer you an exciting solution.

Do you think there is complementarity with Jennifer Haley’s play ‘The Nether’ which literally depicts an interrogation in a near-future science fiction scenario?

Yes, absolutely. Both are taking out technological capabilities and pushing them a little bit further, looking at how humanity will respond if we are able to do those things. And do we like how humanity could respond? And therefore do we want our society to go in that direction? I think that’s the value of all “sci-fi work” is that it allows you to examine the society that we are in through looking at a society we’re not in.

A NUMBER by Churchhill, Writer - Caryl Churchill, Director - Michael Longhurst, Designer - Tom Scutt, Lighting - Lee Curran, The Young Vic Theatre, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson/
John and Lex Shrapnel in A Number, Young Vic Theatre 2015, Credit: Johan Pehrsson

There are productions of A Number that have used test tubes a lot and very heavy scientific aesthetic and I think potentially that might have been interesting when the play first came out – when there was a sort of hype and horror around cloning. Actually what we wanted to do was push our aesthetic into a slightly different place. I put the idea of an interrogation room, which is more about responsibility and ‘blame’.

Did recent public debate and legislative changes surrounding mitochondrial donation influence this new production of A Number?

These advances are having huge gestalt shifts in our thinking, the idea of a three parent family, or the idea of being able to edit our genes are huge. The fact that we can’t achieve it at a certain level doesn’t mean conceptually we’re not on a certain pathway. It seems like as soon as we acknowledge the possibility of editing the genome, then we’re able to correct genetic diseases but we’re also a step nearer to eugenics. That is an important thing that we need to be thinking about.

Do you think the success of plays such as Constellations and A Number indicates a growing place for science in the cultural life?

I have directed predominantly new writing. I love theatre that is exploring who we are and science is a key enabler in understanding who we are, who we are now and who we are becoming. I think a writer who uses science to explore and answer that question can often tap into hugely exciting, revelatory and challenging areas of our humanity. I think as a theatre maker when you have a play that is exploring science, often formally – as is in the case of Constellations and actually in the case of A Number, both of those plays have the form of the play, or at least the theatrical experience dictated by the science. In A Number you’ve got one actor playing several clones. He literally embodies the act of cloning – but it also makes very good theatre. And in Constellations the form of the play was repeated versions of the multiverse. It’s an exciting theatrical provocation for an audience. In the design there’s lots of potential for metaphor. All of these things appeal to me as I’m interested in analytical ways of thinking. I guess it’s a personal preference but I think it’s a really valuable branch of theatre.

Would you argue that science in theatre works best when the science informs the structure rather than the didactic content?

Absolutely. If we’re trying to understand scientific principles there are probably much deeper lectures that one could go to, essays or journals that one could read or documentaries that one could watch. But I think what theatre can do is dramatize emotional consequences of what the science is. It can help us have an emotional understanding and ask the ethical question. Constellations poses what does it feel like to be in a multiverse? Actually, what that does is it makes you realize that I can’t access these other parallel universes, so my choices in this one are all the more precious. And that is the emotional feeling of the play.

I think A Number asks if we could do these things then what would be the ramifications be? What does it mean – this idea that man is born equally? Well genetically he’s not. If we are given these opportunities, how can they be used or abused?

A Number, directed by Michael Longhurst, runs at London’s Young Vic until 15th August.

The Royal Court Theatre tour of Constellations is at Trafalgar Studios until 1st August.

Latest Science Theatre News

As the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Society jointly host a panel discussion on science–inspired theatre, there is plenty more news on science in theatre to catch up on this month.

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, Tom Morton-Smith, John Barrow, Marcus du Sautoy and Richard Bean will join RSC deputy artistic director Erica Whyman for ‘A dramatic experiment: science on stage’ on Monday 11th May. The panel discussion at the Royal Society in London will be broadcast live and then available to view later on the Royal Society’s website.

A new UK tour of the Royal Court Theatre’s Constellations opens this month and will play at venues throughout England including Liverpool, Bristol and Cambridge until the beginning of July. The production features Joe Armstrong and Louise Brealey, who is perhaps best known for her role in television’s Sherlock. The recent production of Constellations on Broadway has earned Ruth Wilson a Tony Award nomination for playing Marianne in Nick Payne’s one act play about the relationship between a bee keeper and a physicist, played out in multiple universes.

The profile of science in London’s West End, recently raised by the transfer of Tom Morton-Smith’s Oppenheimer, will further increase in September when Michael Grandage stages Photograph 51 at the Noel Coward Theatre. Nicole Kidman will play Rosalind Franklin, the pioneering crystallographer who had a pivotal role in the discovery of the structure of DNA, in the first UK production of Anna Ziegler’s play.Constellations_uk_tour

Meanwhile it’s been recently announced that Ophelia Lovibond from BBC satire W1A will play Connie in Sheffield Theatres’ production of Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, which opens at the Cruicible Studio in June.

Finally, Menagerie Theatre Company have announced that their Hotbed Festival in July 2015 will include a new play by Craig Baxter called Pictures of You, inspired by the use of imagery as a treatment in mental health, meaning there is plenty in store for science in theatre in the coming months.

Leading Big Science: Oppenheimer Fuses History and Office Politics

This week the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Oppenheimer play transfers to the Vaudeville Theatre in London. Science Centre Stage caught the production in Stratford-upon-Avon to see what audiences in London can expect from the West End Transfer

Oppenheimer was commissioned from Tom Morton-Smith by the RSC as part of their ongoing mission to tackle big ideas on stage in a way that compliments and challenges the Shakespeare productions that the RSC is naturally best known for. In his programme notes for Oppenheimer, Morton-Smith says that he pitched the idea for the play after attending a workshop at the RSC in which writers were invited to consider the “scale of the ancient Greek chorus and what sort of language and literary register is required to fill a space such as the Swan Theatre.” A tall order indeed.

The play tells the tale of the people who worked on the Manhattan Project during the Second World War and the race to develop the world’s first atomic weapon. J Robert Oppenheimer as project leader is naturally the focus of the piece. His oft-troubled relationships with fellow scientists, friends, family and lovers are presented on a background of strained ideological, military and personal politics. With a cast of over twenty, the list of characters reads like a who’s-who of 20th century physics. Add to this an ensemble of live musicians, cabaret singing, and choreographed parties and there is no doubt that director Angus Jackson achieves the sense of scale that was sought from the outset.

The figure of Oppenheimer might initially bring to mind classical tragedy. But as Morton-Smith points out, this aspect has been tackled previously. Moreover, many of the conventionally tragic aspects of his character (“Shakespearen in its rise and fall” according to Morton-Smith) occurred much later in his life, a period not covered in this play. If the spirit of Shakespeare infuses this work at all then it must be in the sense that Oppenheimer might be more appropriately considered as a history play rather than a tragedy. The depth of information and level of research represented in the work is apparent throughout and must surely represent as historically and sociologically a complete account of the period as it is practical to achieve in an evening’s theatre.

And where there are biographical facts there is also science. This is not a play that shies away from presenting the science of the bomb up-front. Where other plays have perhaps turned largely to metaphor to relate scientific ideas, much of the science of fission and weapon design is conveyed directly in a series of short lectures. These lectures acknowledge the artifice of theatre and allow each character to speak directly to the audience. In contrast, the sequences in which characters are discussing ideas with each other in the dialogue struggle to convince that this is really the language knowledgeable colleagues use to talk to each other. This is always the dilemma of representing professional activity on stage or screen, from a television police show to a piece of science-theatre like Oppenheimer; there is always a certain amount of mutual knowledge in professional communication that is simply not possible to assume in performance. Nonetheless, the delivery is emphatic, perhaps in a conscious (but unnecessary?) effort to make the content more interesting by expressing it with confidence.
Oppenheimer-production-2-2015-541x361
Does the play fall victim to it’s own scale of ambition? It is interesting that Morton-Smith chooses to continue the plot for some time beyond the initial bomb test at the Trinity site. It is no spoiler to point out that the Manhattan scientists achieved their goal and created a weapon – that fact is recorded forever in history. The events at the end of the war and beyond are part of the common historical record: the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the political tensions that led directly to the Cold War. Could the play have ended with blackout following the Trinity explosion? Naturally it can be argued that the most significant and complex moral questions and reactions are to be explored after the bomb is deployed in warfare. But at three hours long the endurance required of the audience must be earned not assumed.

In a climate where science and scientists are increasingly welcomed into cultural conversation, it is both commendable and a risk for the RSC to back a large scale, full length production that doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions and details of the science. But with the risk comes a responsibility to make sure the topic is conveyed in an accessible manner, but which is ultimately good theatre. It will never be possible to achieve this balance perfectly. The scale of Oppenheimer is unique for this genre, and something only possible for producing companies such as the RSC to enable. The great achievement is that it has been commissioned and produced at all. The commercial and critical success of the Stratford production has clearly been sufficient to merit a West End transfer and the opportunity for larger audiences to engage with it can be no bad thing.

Oppenheimer is at London’s Vaudeville Theatre until 23rd May 2015.

Oppenheimer and a New Stoppard Play for 2015

There are some promising events in store for science-on-stage in 2015 as new works premiere and established pieces are revived.

The Royal Shakespeare Company will open its winter season in Stratford-Upon-Avon with a new work by Tom Morton-Smith about the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Depicting work on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in the 1940s, Oppenheimer will preview from 15th January and then run in the Swan Theatre until the 7th March.Oppenheimer at the RSC

It’s 21 years since Tom Stoppard’s classic Arcadia premiered at the National Theatre in London but it’s only a few weeks until the NT produce new work by Stoppard with a scientific theme. The Hard Problem will be the last production to be directed by outgoing NT director Nicholas Hytner. It promises to be an intriguing production to finish on, as Stoppard tackles brain science and consciousness in his first new play since 2006. The sold out production will be staged in the newly refurbished Dorfman (formally Cottesloe) Theatre and will run from the 21st January to April 2015.

The Hard Problem Tells the Story of a psychologist at a brain research institute grappling with the issue of consciousness.
The Hard Problem tells the Story of a psychologist at a brain research institute grappling with the issue of consciousness.

Also in the new year, English Touring Theatre will take a production of Stoppard’s Arcadia directed by Blanche McIntyre around various venues until April, beginning at the Theatre Royal Brighton on 20th January 2015.

With Southampton Nuffied Theatre’s production of Caryl Churchill’s A Number (with stage design by Tom Scutt) to transfer to The Young Vic in London in later 2015 and the Broadway premiere of Nick Paynes’s Constellations, there’s plenty in store for science in theatres in 2015.

Ludwig Boltzmann Portrayed in New Science Play

Ludwig Boltzmann 1844-1906

A  new play depicting Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann opens this week in Birmingham. Trusting Atoms: The Last Trials of Ludwig Boltzmann by Rowena Fletcher-Wood will be performed on the 24th-27th September in the Cadbury Room on the University of Birmingham’s Edgbaston Campus.

Described as portraying Boltzmann “in his battle to save the dying theory of atoms, his equation and his career”, Trusting Atoms also features Lise Meitner, who was inspired by Boltzmann during her time at the University of Vienna in the early 20th centuary.

Further information about the production is available here.

Autumn Tours Bring Science to the Stage

Several science-in-theatre productions are touring the UK this month. HeLa, Adura Onashile’s show about Henrietta Lacks, is currently touring the Scottish highlands and islands before reaching Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre on 3rd October. The production will then go on to venues in New Zealand in October.  Adura Onashile in HeLa

Idle Motion’s engaging Bletchley Park themed production, That is All You Need to Know is embarking on an extensive national tour, taking in nearly 20 different venues over the month from the 17th September.

It’s also possible to book ahead for performances of Hanging Hooke. Take the Space Theatre Company are performing this play about the life of Robert Hooke in Chelmsford, York and Crawley during October and November.