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.
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.
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.
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.
Things don’t have thoughts..if it really is physics then we’re just marking our own homework
Last month Tom Stoppard discussed his new play The Hard Problem with its director Nicholas Hytner in a National Theatre Platform talk. Some time later, a few newspapers reported that Stoppard had claimed audiences don’t get all the references in his plays any more. Listen to the discussion below to hear what Stoppard really said and why.
An energetic new piece of theatre structured around some excellent science communication will be part of the National Theatre’s new 2015 summer season.
Islington Community Theatre’s Brainstorm, which was first performed at London’s Park Theatre earlier this month, will be re-staged on 21st-25th July 2015 in the National Theatre’s temporary theatre on the South Bank.
A cast of ten teenagers from Islington schools devised Brainstorm under the direction of Ned Glasier and Emily Lim, based on ideas in a TED talk by neuroscientist Prof Sarah-Jayne Blakemore. The result is a funny, chaotic and moving account of teenage life, infused throughout with the latest science of the adolescent brain.
The energy of Brainstorm more than filled the modest space of the sold-out Park Theatre in January, so it is excellent news that the production will reach wider audiences as part of the NT summer programme.
Welcome to new visitors who have arrived via the RSC Chemistry World blog. If you are interested in finding out more about The Effectby Lucy Prebble, there will be a new production in Sheffield in June 2015. Oppenheimer by Tom Morton-Smith opens in the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon on 15th January 2015. The RSC has a Q&A with the writer Tom Morton-Smith here.
Follow the links from each play on sci-stage.com to find details of past productions or browse for new plays and productions using the map, the calendar and Twitter.
New productions opening in January 2015 with a scientific theme include The Hard Problem at the National Theatre and Brainstorm, a devised play by Islington Community Theatre about the teenage brain, in connection with the Wellcome Trust.
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.
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 Problemwill 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.