BWW Review: OPPENHEIMER, Royal Shakespeare Company Online
A dramatic reading of Tom Morton-Smith’s biographical epic, reuniting the 2014/15 cast from the Swan Theatre production in Stratford-Upon-Avon
It takes a writer with some guts to chart the career of J. Robert Oppenheimer, but Tom Morton-Smith holds nothing back in his 2015 play about the inventor of the atom bomb.
After its premiere at the Royal Shakespeare Company's Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon, Oppenheimer transferred to London, running for five months altogether. In a revival of its sell-out success, the RSC are staging a one-off reading of the piece, featuring the original cast. Directed by Angus Jackson, the production is shown as a Zoom meeting with 20 actors from their homes.
As is becoming increasingly common in the 'new normal' of Covid-19, the reading is pre-recorded via Zoom, and the audience see the final edit on YouTube. While watching a play on YouTube is an interesting experience in itself, the RSC have chosen to enable a 'chat' function alongside the stream. Audience members chat to each other as they watch and the comments are overwhelmingly positive. It lends a lovely community atmosphere to the virtual experience.
However, as one audience member pointed out, the number of viewers dwindled as the play progressed. Running at a whopping three hours 15 minutes, Oppenheimer is not your casual YouTube binge. The expectations of one platform do not always translate to another. Still, the RSC's popularity on stage may serve it well. For the past week, fans from all over the world have been asking questions about the performance in the video's comments section.
Nevertheless, the production comes across quite bizarrely. Without the context of the set, costumes and physical spacing between the actors, there is no visual information except for each individual in their little window, which makes the story difficult to follow. Images from the original stage production intersperse the action, which helps to understand moments when there should be kissing or other physical actions. But an adaptation into a digital or audio-friendly format would be welcome.
On the other hand, there was something nice about the informality of a dramatic reading on Zoom. The video platform certainly lends itself to a sense of banter and even intimacy, which is surprisingly effective in the dialogues and small group sections.
Still, stage acting does not work on screen. The actors were very inconsistent with their eyelines, and moments delivered directly to the camera were often more poignant than those delivered to the screen - like Michael Grady-Hall's passionate delivery as Oppenheimer's brother Frank, begging his brother to be selfless. In fact, John Heffernan had some very strange eyelines in the titular role of Robert Oppenheimer. His eyes darted down a lot, which made him look like he was reading off a script. This was not helped by the fact that most actors were working in unfamiliar accents, in itself quite distracting.
Having said that, given the circumstances, the production was largely effective, with music by Grant Olding and sound by Christopher Shutt helping to contextualise and liven the piece. The ensemble also did a good job, and it was particularly interesting to watch actors as they listened to their castmates. You can't usually see everyone's responses so clearly on stage or in cinema.
All in all, this production is long and hard to follow, but does have some nice elements. Crucially: more than ever, Oppenheimer is a very timely play. One audience member wrote what an awful time in history it shows. Another replied that there is never a good time in history. That feels very pertinent at the moment.