The Bomb: a partial history, in two parts

IssueApril 2012
Review by Patrick Nicholson

The Tricycle Theatre, ‘Britain’s leading political playhouse’ according to The Times, is running a packed season of events examining nuclear weapons and the nuclear debate.

A centrepiece of this season is an ambitious two-part, five-hour sequence of 10 new short plays exploring nuclear issues, the performances punctuated and complemented by verbatim readings, archive footage and images.

The 10 plays explore nuclear weapons from a refreshingly diverse range of perspectives, from Attlee wrestling with the decision to develop Britain’s bomb to Indian physicists trying to reconcile Gandhi’s legacy with the concept of the ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’; from bungling would-be nuclear arms dealers in the Ukraine to a defecting Iranian nuclear scientist locking horns with his cynical CIA debriefer.

The first quintet of plays, entitled ‘First Blast: Proliferation’, covers the genesis of the bomb up to the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991. Then follows ‘Second Blast: Present Dangers’, in which, as the title implies, the plays focus on recent and current events, particularly the situation regarding Iran’s nuclear programme.

As director Nicholas Kent explains: ‘I first thought of it as a history of the political landmarks since the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Japan. However, with the commissioning of the nine writers involved the project evolved, and took on a life of its own. Instead of a series of plays looking at political milestones such as the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima, the Cuban Missile crisis and negotiations in Reyjkavik, we decided to focus on proliferation, and the present dangers we face’.

My personal favourites were the opening plays of each quintet. Zinnie Harris’s ‘From Elsewhere: the message…’ follows émigré physicists Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls as they prepare to take their momentous memorandum on the practical feasibility of a fission bomb to Whitehall.

With an unexpected, but very successful mixture of farce (broken spectacles, lost invitation cards, archetypal Whitehall gatekeepers) and pathos, this was a gripping and formidable short piece – a perfect opener, avoiding the culturally overfamiliar ground of the Manhattan Project itself.

The second set of plays opened with Colin Teevan’s amazing ‘There was a man. There was no man.’ which begins with the assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist in his car by unknown assailants on a motorbike.

With a very clever theatrical structure, we see the consequences of this horrific act from two different sides, through the eyes of two women intimately involved: one an émigré Iranian physicist, lover of the dead man, who realises she has been used by her brother, a Mossad agent, to set up the victim; the other the dead man’s wife who, still blood-spattered, is interrogated by her brother who turns out to be acting for the Iranian security services.

Throwing out shards of insights both political and personal, spitting betrayal and the cold duplicity of state interests, this is a great piece of theatre.

Between plays the verbatim readings included the words of premier Zhou Enlai on China’s ‘no first use’ policy; former president FW De Klerk on South Africa’s decision to unilaterally disarm its nuclear capability; Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu; and Kate Hudson of CND.

The substantial printed programme contains a wealth of historical and factual material including the text of Einstein’s 1939 letter to Roosevelt, a summary of the physics of the bomb, an introduction to the IAEA, a nuclear glossary, and a timeline of the history of the UK nuclear weapons: a significant resource in its own right.

The wider season includes stand-up comedy, science lectures, classical music, visual art, political cartoons, photography, debates, and a film season.

I strongly recommend getting along to experience some of this rich and stimulating mix before it’s too late.