LONDON (AP) — Suddenly, scientists are sexy. With Benedict Cumberbatch nominated for multiple trophies as Alan Turing and Eddie Redmayne turning heads as Stephen Hawking, young British actors playing scientists are all the rage this awards season.
So, it’s good timing for the Royal Shakespeare Company, whose new play, Oppenheimer, features rising star John Heffernan as American scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer, leader of the team that developed the first nuclear weapon.
What fuels our fascination with scientific stories? It may be that, behind the complex equations and cool heads, the stakes are stratospherically high.
Turing, subject of the movie The Imitation Game, cracked Nazi codes during World War II and helped invent computing, while the movie The Theory of Everything tells how Hawking probed the origins of the universe. Oppenheimer, for his part, unleashed a destructive power that the world had never known.
“We’re all addicted to science fiction,” said the play’s director, Angus Jackson — but he believes science fact can compete with even the wildest sci-fi scenarios.
“Some theoretical physicists build a bomb which is so powerful that we’re terrified. You can have it in the back of a van, and it would wipe out a city the size of London,” said Jackson, who studied physics and philosophy at Oxford University. “That’s a powerful idea — and it only comes about because these people pursued the understanding of the building blocks of the universe.”
The play, written by Tom Morton-Smith, takes Oppenheimer from a left-wing academic in Berkeley, CA, to a military scientist in Los Alamos, NM, where he headed the top-secret Manhattan Project. Its goal was to beat Nazi Germany to the creation of an atomic bomb.
Onstage, the race to build the bomb mingles with the private lives of the scientists, who let off steam at parties fueled by punch made from lab alcohol.
“There was a huge number of births at Los Alamos,” Heffernan said, “because there wasn’t much else by way of entertainment.”
Oppenheimer’s complex personal life saw him torn between two women, and he had troubled relationships with both his children and his brother.
Morton-Smith wanted to convey a sense of the real people behind major historical events.
“These were human beings, they were people with relationships, with heartache, with histories and problems and mental instabilities,” Morton-Smith said during rehearsals. “A lot of the scientists were very torn” about the work they were doing.
“They were fascinated with discovery and fascinated by the science,” Morton-Smith said. “But you take that theoretical, mathematical beauty, and you put it in the real world, and suddenly hundreds of thousands of people are dead.”
Oppenheimer embodied that contradiction, and had to live with it.
After watching the first atomic test explosion, he quoted the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu religious text — “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” After the war, he opposed development of the hydrogen bomb, and was stripped of his security clearance during the U.S. anti-Communist fervor of the 1950s.
Heffernan, a regular at the RSC and London’s National Theatre, pored over footage of Oppenheimer to prepare for the role. He also had a tutorial from an Oxford physicist — though he says he still struggles to understand the science.
“My dad was a physics teacher,” the actor said. “It really didn’t rub off.”
Oppenheimer died in 1967, but Heffernan knows what he would ask him if he could.
“I’d ask him if he ever had any regrets, if he would have done anything differently with the benefit of hindsight,” he said. “That’s the million-dollar question, really, with Oppenheimer — if he always felt in control, if he knew the consequences of what he was unleashing.”
Based in Shakespeare’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon, the RSC is best known for staging works of the Elizabethan playwright. But it also develops new plays, including the Broadway-bound adaptations of Hilary Mantel’s Tudor saga Wolf Hall.
Morton-Smith praised the company for taking risks on new writing.
“It’s their attitude, that you should direct classical work as though it’s new and new work as though it’s classical. And I think that’s very exciting as a writer,” he said.
Oppenheimer is at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until March 7.
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