Science on Stage 2013: A Year in Review

The year 2013 has been a good one for the science-in-theatre genre with numerous performances of established classics staged throughout the world as well as new plays appearing on the scene.

The year began with the final few performances of Lucy Prebble’s The Effect at The National Theatre in London. The complexities of love amid a neuropharmacology clinical trial attracted both sell-out audiences and a clutch of awards and nominations for the Headlong/NT team.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s new version of Brecht’s A Life of Galileo in the Swan Theatre brought audiences to Stratford-Upon-Avon to enjoy a lively and musical production with set-design by Tom Scutt.

Several new plays portraying the history of science opened throughout the year. Operation Epsilon by Alan Brody premiered in Boston USA, dealing with the post-war detention of German nuclear scientists and offering an intriguing postscript to Michael Frayn’s mighty Copenhagen. STELLA, a new play by Sibohan Nicholas featuring portrayals of 18th Century astronomers Caroline and William Herschel, opened in Brighton in May and went on to tour small venues in the UK and Ireland throughout the summer.

A highlight of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August was Adura Onashile’s portrayal of Henrietta Lacks in her one-woman show HeLa. Onashile’s performance brought the story of Lacks treatment in the 1950s and the prolifically multiplying cell line that has lived on in the decades since her death to ever-wider audiences. The wartime code-breaking endeavors of Alan Turing and his colleagues at Bletchley Park were also brought to life at the Edinburgh Festival in Idle Motion’s immensely imaginative That is All You Need to Know.

As ever, Frayn’s Copenhagen and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia proved popular choices for professional and amateur theatre companies throughout the world. In Hong Kong there was a reading of Copenhagen in Mandarin in October and as well as a revival of a production given by Nobel laureates in Gothenburg in December. The appeal of Arcadia was confirmed this year when it was voted fourth in a list of the Britain’s favorite plays.

There are promising events in store for 2014 with the world premiere of Dava Sobel’s play about Copernicus And the Sun Stood Still set for production in Denver in April. With new tours of STELLA, Hanging Hooke and A Life of Galileo on the cards in the UK as well as a new play about neuroscience on the way from Constellations playwright Nick Payne, 2014 is looking bright for science-in-theatre.



German Nuclear Scientists Gather on Stage for Operation Epsilon

Heisenberg: It’s like a pre-war house party – one of those house parties in a play, that’s cut off from any contact with the outside world, where you know the guests have all been invited for some secret sinister purpose.

Copenhagen Act One, Michael Frayn, 1998

In July 1945 the Allied Forces imprisoned ten scientists associated with the German wartime nuclear programme in an English country house near Cambridge. For nearly six months the conversations between the captives were secretly recorded in an attempt to determine how close the Nazis came to developing a nuclear weapon.

The transcripts from Farm Hall were declassified in 1992, providing valuable source material for historians and writers intrigued by what happened there. The Farm Hall operation is depicted in Adam Ganz’s 2010 radio play Nuclear Reactions and provided important background material for Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen.

Operation Epsilon is a new stage play by Alan Brody depicting the internment at Farm Hall. It premiered at Central Square Theatre in Cambridge, MA, USA on 7th March 2013, produced by The Nora Theatre Company under the direction of Andy Sandberg. The company works with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop plays representing science in theatre.

The recordings made at Farm Hall were inconclusive about the true state of the Nazi nuclear programme. However, the reactions of the scientists to the news of the bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945 were enlightening, with Otto Hahn initially said to have considered suicide. Although the events at Farm Hall have been examined before, there seems to be sufficient dramatic material available to sustain new writing, making Brody’s new play an intriguing prospect.

Operation Epsilon runs at the Central Square Theatre in Cambridge, MA, USA until 28 April 2013.