Tom Bolton in south London
25 September 2023
It seems 2023 is the year we rediscovered the nuclear bomb. Against a backdrop of renewed nuclear jeopardy following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Oppenheimer became an unlikely summer blockbuster, and on the stage Katherine Moar’s debut Farm Hall played at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Now the Southwark Playhouse presents the UK premiere of Alan Brody’s Operation Epsilon, which deals with exactly the same scenario as Farm Hall.
Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography.
In 1945 the invading Allied armies arrested ten men they considered to be Germany’s leading nuclear scientists, and flew them to a house in Cambridgeshire, holding them for six months while their conversations were covertly recorded. The Allies wanted to hear their reaction when the atom bombs were dropped on Japan, and to discover how close Germany had come to building an A-bomb of its own. Partial transcripts of their conversations were declassified in the 1990s, and have been an object of fascination ever since. What did these men think they were doing? Were they trying to build a bomb for the Nazis? How did they justify their work to themselves, or to anyone?
Operation Epsilon has a cast of 11 which, despite the broad stage at the new Southwark Playhouse Elephant venue, is a tall order. Andy Sandberg, who also directed the original production in the US in 2013, does a sterling job of managing his actors, aided by Janie Howland’s two-level cutaway house set, with its huge living room.
The cast provides good entertainment as a bunch of egoists obsessed, for the most part, with their research and blind to the terror around them. They bicker, jostle for status, and re-engineer their backstories, aware that a reckoning is coming for anyone who worked for the Nazis. Nathaniel Parker as Otto Hahn understands more than most what he has done, and simmers with suppressed rage in a show-leading performance. Gyuri Sarossy’s Werner Heisenberg, the leader of the group, is portrayed as a scheming and self-centred figure. Simon Chandler makes Max von Laue a fine combination of elderly indignation and surprising compassion. Jamie Bogyo’s Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker communicates arrogance and uncertainty in equal measure.
Photo credit: Pamela Raith Photography.
It is difficult to avoid comparing Brody’s play with Moar’s because, while both use the same source material, they come to surprisingly different conclusions. Brody’s portrayal of Heisenberg leaves little doubt that he covered his back by implying he deliberately delayed Nazi progress towards a bomb. Moar leaves the truth of his actions in doubt, which is a more subtle approach.
Brody also fails to clearly distinguish the feuding younger scientists from one another, leaving us knowing little about their backgrounds or motivations. Moar explores their motivations in significantly greater detail.
And Brody blows what should be the most dramatic moment of all, when Hahn discovers that the US has dropped the A-bomb, serving up a distracting scene of comic awkwardness with Simon Bubb’s Alexander Armstrong-esque British Major Rittner. The tension surrounding one of the most significant moments in human history is at the centre of Moar’s play.
Overall, Brody gives us characters who often seem two-dimensional and leaves us with the overwhelming impression that the scientists were technically brilliant but morally bankrupt, uninterested in understanding the wider implications of their work, seeing themselves as an elite untouched by grubby politics.
Brody ends the play with an unconvincing “gotcha” – a letter from exiled Jewish scientist Lise Meitner telling Hahn that he and his colleagues will not be forgiven. It is the closest a woman comes to appearing in the play, and the all-male cast supplies a powerful reminder of the way the world was run. Meitner’s letter is supposed to puncture the men’s self-satisfaction, but it seems a crude way to round off a debate that, because of the gaps in the Farm Hall recordings and the occluded motivations of the participants, can have no real conclusion. Operation Epsilon is an enjoyable and thought-provoking evening, but Brody does not make the best use of his rich and strange source material.