Bethany Stuart reviews Theatre With Teeth’s American Prometheus, a new play written by Tom Milton
American Prometheus is immediately striking, its subject matter demanding the full attention of the audience. Its writer, Tom Milton, explores the dawn of the atomic age from the eyes of the individuals who provided the science which allowed it to happen.
Robert Oppenheimer’s immortal phrase “I am become death” rings throughout in a haunting discussion of ethics and personal responsibility. The action begins in a psychiatric institution where we meet Jamie, a psychiatrist, and his hyper-intelligent, grammar-obsessed patient Erin.
The dialogues between Jamie and Erin are one of the best features of this play. Fast-paced, witty and incredibly well written, they provide the necessary light-relief in between the more sobering dream scenes where Jamie is transported back to the 1945 Trinity Test of the atomic bomb. Their relationship becomes increasingly significant as the lines between sanity and insanity, real and unreal, and doctor and patient, become blurred. Indeed, as Jamie’s mind seems to unravel on stage it is Erin who provides an understanding and empathy: “to go insane oneself is the only logical response”.
We meet General Groves and the physicists Feynman and Teller, the other figures involved in the Manhattan Project, in a bunker waiting for the test to begin. Though starting slowly the tension builds and builds as the characters and audience anticipate the bomb’s detonation. During this period emotions run high and discussions of the potentially devastating consequences of what they once considered a scientific miracle take place.
The monologue of Hungarian physicist Teller was particularly captivating – all the more impressive for actor Daniel Heathecote’s dogged maintenance of a thick Eastern European accent throughout. Oppenheimer’s appearance at the end of the play in female form was somewhat confusing and it took a while to grasp exactly what was happening, but nonetheless the scene tied up the loose ends of the plot well.
Overall I found the play to be brilliantly informed and intelligent, dealing with a complex subject matter that demanded a kind of mental audience participation as we empathised with the personal responsibility of the individuals involved and asked ourselves what we would have done in their position.
A word must also be said in praise of the technical design – the effects used to represent the detonation of the bomb being particularly successful. Aside from some questionable American accents in places the actors dealt well with a very dialogue-based play and did justice to the poignant subject matter.
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