'Operation Epsilon' review – this riveting and timely history play dissects the ethics of nuclear physics

Read our four-star review of Alan Brody's wartime drama Operation Epsilon, now in performances at Southwark Playhouse Elephant to 21 October.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

The intersection of science and ethics comes under riveting scrutiny in Operation Epsilon, American writer Alan Brody’s history play now receiving a mightily ambitious British premiere Off West End.

It’s not every day you encounter a non-musical on the fringe produced to this scale. That’s to say with a cast of 11 headed by Olivier Award winner Nathaniel Parker, and with a capacious, beautifully detailed set from Janie E Howland, who designed its US premiere in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a decade ago.

The material itself may seem familiar, following upon the release of the thematically comparable Oppenheimer, not to mention a newer touring play, Farm Hall, set in that exact same location in Godmanchester, near Cambridge, as Brody’s drama is here.

But so resonant are its implications, ever-topical its import, that one simply can’t be reminded too often of the political and societal dangers of disinterest. Telling of the German scientists – some though not all avowed members of the Nazi Party – who were interned in England in 1945, the play asks whether these innovators in the world of nuclear physics can (or should) exist in a moral vacuum.

That question gains in immediacy from the shock with which they receive news of the American bombing of Japan. “I knew what was possible,” says Parker’s Nobel Laureate, Otto Hahn, who is overtaken with self-reproach at the enormity of the loss generated by dubious advances in the world of fission-fuelled weaponry.

The play has a narrator in Simon Bubb’s Major Rittner, who painstakingly introduces each of these German captives and cues us in to the passage of time travelled across two neatly paced acts. (The director here, as with this play before, is Andy Sandberg.)

The exposition may be old-fashioned but it has the advantage of clarifying what could be a bewildering collective. The cast do their bit by individualising a disparate gathering of experts and egos, few of whom will mean much in advance to most playgoers.

Presumably the best known of the lot is Werner Heisenberg, the theoretical physicist and philosopher who is the lynchpin of Michael Frayn’s more tightly focused Copenhagen. As played this time round by a sharp-eyed Gyuri Sarossy, Heisenberg is among those to wonder why he and his compatriots are being “punished”, and he takes emotional solace in tinkling away at the piano – Beethoven first and, later on, Liszt.

“We’re scientists, not thugs,” exclaims Jake Mann’s thuggish-seeming Karl Wirtz, a nuclear physicist whose smart attire can’t disguise a scolding temperament that has no time for house arrest, even in an English country pile. (When one of the men compares their lot to being confined to a concentration camp, you wince at the monstrous absurdity of the remark.)

The cast inhabit differing points on a spectrum of bewilderment, anger and longing, and Brody is clever amidst this all-male hothouse to give the play’s last words to an unseen woman, the Austrian-Swedish scientific powerhouse, Lise Meitner, who fled the Nazis just in time.

The more keen-eyed may be surprised to see Jamie Bogyo, late of the high-profile West End musicals Moulin Rouge! and Aspects of Love, here mucking in amongst an ensemble that makes all sorts of unexpected connections.

Surely it’s no accident that Matthew Duckett’s excitable Erich Bagge, a student of Heisenberg, is given a facial resemblance to Hitler, whilst Parker’s Hahn bears a decided resemblance to Stalin – which is disconcerting to say the least.

And lest anyone think this subject matter belongs to a bygone time, look afresh at the numerous powder kegs popping up around the world on an alarming basis even now. Peace, Brody’s play reminds us, is a fragile thing, as is a society that cares about civility when chaos all too evidently lies in wait.

Operation Epsilon is at Southwark Playhouse Elephant through 21 October. Book Operation Epsilon tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Operation Epsilon (Photo by Pamela Raith Photography)

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