Werner Heisenberg was a German physicist who made key breakthroughs in quantum mechanics in the late 1920s. His work was then, and even now remains, so groundbreaking that you are possibly familiar with his name through pop culture. Star Trek has used ‘Heisenberg compensators’ for decades and more recently Walter White took his name for his alias in Breaking Bad.
Towards the end of the Second World War, the UK detained several scientists who had worked on Germany’s nuclear programme. These men included three Nobel Prize winners, including of course Heisenberg, played here by Alan Cox, and Otto Hahn (Forbes Masson), who discovered nuclear fission. Farm Hall, a country house near Cambridge, was home to Operation Epsilon. The house was bugged and everything the men talked about was recorded and transcribed. Playwright and historian Katherine Moar has taken this fascinating true story and what remains of these transcripts to create a drama which looks at the complicated lives and beliefs of these men.
The story begins shortly before 6 August 1945 – the day America bombed Hiroshima. The set, designed by Ceci Calf, is small, a single sitting room with a lot of peeling, mismatched wallpaper. The country house leaves the men with little to do with their time: they bicker and play chess. While they may be colleagues, there is little to indicate that they are friends. Differences in their approaches to work and their opinions on, and membership of, the Nazi Party cause tension and disagreement. There is the impression that perhaps they are sometimes bickering for the sake of bickering; a way out of the daily tedium. A sense of wanting Hitler to lose but also not wanting their homeland of Germany to lose comes across strongly. The cast are uniformly excellent, each given moments to stand out and each conveying their reasons for doing the work – from the urge to discover to the simple need for a job. None of the men are portrayed as monsters, nor as complete innocents.
As the men hear the news report on the bombing of Hiroshima, everything changes. Some discuss with cold detachment what would have happened to the city and the people at the moment of detonation; the scientific facts of the atomic bomb. This has a chilling effect on both the audience and on Hahn. Masson is particularly good here, showing the scientist’s breakdown, his guilt and overwhelming feeling of responsibility. The group’s work has moved from the theoretical to the real world and the groundwork laid by Heisenberg and Hahn has changed not just the shape of the war but the world: the Atomic Age has begun.
Farm Hall interrogates the conflict that these men may have experienced. Could their work have allowed Nazi Germany to be the first to develop an atomic bomb? Why did the Americans get there first? They debate and equivocate their parts: did they work slower? Did they sabotage their own and each other’s work? There isn’t a black and white answer offered and as the script draws on actual transcripts, it makes for a fascinating contemplation of how these men felt.
Moar and Director Stephen Unwin have taken an intriguing true story and built a strong dramatic thriller around it. The excellent cast keeps us engaged through to the end, which for a play about six literal geniuses and their specialist subject taking place in a single room is impressive! I don’t think Heisenberg would show up in pop culture as much had Nazi Germany achieved an atomic bomb – which is for the best really.
Written by Katherine Moar
Directed by Stephen Unwin
Designed by Ceci Calf
Farm Hall plays at Jermyn Street Theatre until 8 April. Further information and bookings can be found here.