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.

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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.

Actor Edward Bennett on Playing Francis Crick in Photograph 51

Edward Bennett by Marc Brenner
Edward Bennett visiting Kings College London. Photo: Marc Brenner

Fresh from an acclaimed season with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Edward Bennett is currently in the West End playing Francis Crick in Photograph 51 alongside Nicole Kidman. Edward told Science Centre Stage about his impressions of Crick, about visiting the historic labs at Kings College London and about similarities between acting and science…

Do you prepare any differently for playing real-life characters such as Francis Crick? 

It depends who it is and it depends how well known they are. The great thing about stage, which I think differs perhaps a little bit from TV or film, is that the need for an impression is not necessarily as great. For me, it has to be relevant to the story that you’re doing. You don’t want to necessarily go out and do an impression or take it too literally, trying to become that person, if it doesn’t suit the narrative that you’re in

The profession of science and the profession of theatre are to an extent are very very similar

The great thing about Crick is that there’s plenty of footage of him. But he’s not known for his personality so much within the public consciousness in a wider sense, than he is for what he did and what he represents. I’ve been able to pick and choose and have quite a lot of artistic license with how I’ve portrayed him. I think the same is true of everyone else [in the play]. I think the most important thing is that you’re honest and truthful rather than trying to do an all singing, all dancing impression of someone.

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

Watson famously opens his account in The Double Helix by saying ‘I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood’. Is that something you try to get across?

I think within our story Watson is the more demonstrative. I think perhaps in history Crick was the more demonstrative, running into The Eagle and standing on the table and saying he’d discovered the secret of life. But I think in the ‘race’ for DNA, as it’s depicted in this play, Crick is depicted a little bit more as wanting to do the right thing. And certainly reading the letters between Watson and Crick and with Wilkins running up to and after the publication of double helix, you see how Crick is very keen not to overemphasise the ‘Watson and Crick’ element of it. He wants to concentrate on the science rather than the personality of the discovery. That’s quite nice to play, and it gives a nice dynamic between Watson and Crick in the play.

The shame of it is that it became a race when it didn’t really need to be

Edward Bennett and Will Attenborough - by Marc Brenner
Edward Bennett (Crick) with Will Attenborough, who plays James Watson. Photo: Marc Brenner

Crick sounds like quite a guy.  I think especially at that age and that time they enjoyed the stardom of it. I think all human beings have an ego and within science – the nature of this discovery and how it came about – and what I’ve learned about it – these were two men with egos to match the discovery. Their relationship, along with Wilkins, and obviously with Rosalind Franklin, is really interesting.

How do you think the play deals with that fact that Rosalind Franklin is not a household name like Watson or Crick?

Part of what’s been happening quite a lot since the discovery really is to redress the balance of exactly how important each scientist was. I think what really is the truth of it is they were all equally important. They all added something to it. It was just the fact that they weren’t working together as a whole team. If they had been working together and everyone had been sharing all of the information all the time, the person who came to the discovery may well have been Rosalind Franklin, it may have been Maurice Wilkins, it may still have been Watson or Crick or both. But because Wilkins and Franklin were working separately to Watson and Crick, the shame of it is that it became a race when it didn’t really need to be. Or if it was a race, it was a race with Linus Pauling at Caltech.

I think what really is the truth of it is they were all equally important

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Rosalind Franklin’s ‘epitaph’ for the DNA helix

There’s a shame that success and the search for success gets in the way of what it is they’re actually trying to find for the sake of something bigger and better than that. I think that’s what the play brings out beautifully and it examines the cost to every person within the story including Gosling and Caspar as well. For a play that deals with the science so well – takes an audience through the science so clearly- to be able to bring that into it as well is a real triumph and I think Anna Zeigler has done it brilliantly.

You visited the site of the labs at Kings College London where Franklin and Wilkins worked. Did you find that helpful?

They put out a wonderful exhibition for us, which anyone can go and see if you give them some notice. We saw Photograph 51, we saw Wilkins’ story called Radium Island which he wrote when he was twelve – which was amazing. We saw lots of letters and postcards between all of them. We saw Rosalind Franklin’s epitaph for the DNA helix – a brilliant thing where she writes what is almost like a gravestone for the very thing she was trying to discover.

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The cover of Maurice Wilkins’ boyhood story Radium Island

It was absolutely fascinating to find the correlations, not just within history and this time, but also the correlations between success (and what success is) and the nature of personality within the profession of science and the profession of theatre. They are to an extent are very very similar.

Professor Brian Sutton was speaking to us about the things that he’s working on. There are fine lines between getting something right, winning the Nobel, or getting lots of funding or getting an institute named after you and getting it wrong and going out into the wilderness forever. It was absolutely brilliant and I think without that we would have been a little bit at sea, so it was critical really.

We’re on such fine lines taking an audience through a human story, a historical story and a scientific story

What role did writer Anna Zeigler play in the rehearsal process?

Anna Ziegler by Marc Brenner
Photograph 51 platwright Anna Ziegler. Photo: Marc Brenner

She was there for a week at the beginning of the rehearsal period, which was great because it’s a relatively new play, certainly new here [in the UK]. So there might be things that need to change, lines that need to change, Americanisms that don’t quite fit with the English vernacular. She was very very flexible, there were lines added, lines taken away, things changed, which was great to have. She was very flexible and not overly protective of her work and obviously trusts [director] Michael Grandage and Michael Grandage trusts her as well so it was a lovely thing to have. There’s been lots of involvement by her and it’s just lovely to see a young writer enjoying herself, having a show on in the West End. It’s amazing for her. It just makes it for us another reason to make sure we get it right.

Stephen Campbell Moore plays Maurice Wilkins in Photograph 51. Photo: Marc Brenner
Stephen Campbell Moore plays Maurice Wilkins in Photograph 51. Photo: Marc Brenner

There’s relatively little stage direction in the text of the play. Does that allow flexibility as an actor?

Kind of the opposite. There’s flexibility, obviously, and there should always be in order to be able to play around in rehearsal and try things out. But when it comes to it, the kind of concept that we have with the play, it’s incredibly delicate and technically very very acute so there isn’t a lot of ‘there’s your lighting space go out and play with it’. We’re on such fine lines taking an audience through a human story, a historical story and a scientific story. So we’ve got lots of different things going on that we need to take an audience through in ninety minutes. Only ninety minutes to be able to create the right kind of dramatic atmosphere and to serve the play properly.

In the last RSC season you were starring in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Love’s Labour’s Won while  Tom Morton-Smith’s Oppenhiemer was playing concurrently in the adjacent Swan Theatre. Do you think there’s a growing appetite with audiences for theatre with scientific themes or scientific biography? 

I’d like to say yes but also if I’m honest there happens to be two plays within a year of each other that were just bloody well written, that happen to be about scientific things. I think if two plays came out that were about bakery (which I’m sure after Bake Off there will be!) and if they’re as well written I think that they could possibly go into town if you get the right companies, the right actors, directors and obviously producers who want to do it in the West End.

I wouldn’t like to say it’s a coincidence because I think there is a taste for it. Great productions need an audience that wants to go and see these plays, these stories. And they do and they did with Oppenheimer and it was brilliant, and I think ours is as well. I think it’s a happy coincidence if it is one but I’d like to think it isn’t. I certainly would go and see Oppenheimer if I wasn’t next door in the other theatre and could just pop in and see it. I think everyone that I’ve heard that saw it loved it. I hope that more [such plays] come out in the future, that would be great.

Photograph 51 is currently playing at the Noël Coward Theatre, booking until 21st November

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.

Discover More Science in Theatre…

Oppenhiemer RSC
Oppenheimer at the Royal Shakespeare Company

Welcome to new visitors who have arrived via the RSC Chemistry World blog. If you are interested in finding out more about The Effect by 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.

For a scholarly account of science and theatre, Dr Kirsten Shepherd-Barr’s book Science on Stage is an excellentScience on Stage place to start. Carl Djerassi’s plays (including Insufficiency) and Shelagh Stephenson’s An Experiment With An Air Pump may also be of interest. Chemist Rowena Fletcher-Wood has recently produced a play about Ludwig Boltzmann called Trusting Atoms.

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.

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.