Review: OPERATION EPSILON, Southwark Playhouse

Nathaniel Parker leads the cast of 11 in this new production of Alan Brody’s play

By: Sep. 21, 2023
Review: OPERATION EPSILON, Southwark Playhouse



Review: OPERATION EPSILON, Southwark Playhouse Second World War stories seem to be in vogue at the moment (though did they ever really go away?), with Christopher Nolan’s juggernaut Oppenheimer emotionally draining cinema audiences across the globe, and Operation Mincemeat continuing to entertain audiences at the Fortune Theatre. Alan Brody’s Operation Epsilon follows in their footsteps, with Andy Sandberg’s production making its UK première at Southwark Playhouse’s new venue (Elephant).

In Europe, the war is over. However, the conflict hasn’t completely died down on the other side of the world and the Manhattan Project is in full swing - naturally, the Allies want to know where they stand in terms of nuclear weaponry, so they decide to gather Germany’s most pre-eminent scientists and keep them in custody until they can be certain that they’re ‘ahead’. After being temporarily housed in a number of different locations, their final destination is Farm Hall near Cambridge. The group isn’t physically mistreated in any way, however the isolation from their families and their work soon starts to take its toll.

As the world continues its lurch to the right (and far right), and teeters on the edge of yet more large scale conflict, it’s understandable that plays like Operation Epsilon and films like Oppenheimer are being produced; history is an entity that we should seek to learn from, and by far the easiest way to do this is via the entertainment industry. This play would arguably not have been staged had Oppenheimer not captured the public’s imagination - and this wouldn’t have been that big a loss in terms of the overall conversation.

For starters, the more interesting events took place before all of the scientists were gathered - if SpitLip ever get bored of Operation Mincemeat, this could be the ideal farcical follow-up - so most of the play is taken up by their complaints and queries as to why they have been brought to Farm Hall. Once they learn of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Japan there is some rumination, but the only real introspection comes from Otto Hahn, as he and his colleague Lise Meitner were the ones responsible for revealing nuclear fission to the world. The rest of the group is more concerned about their work not being as advanced as they’d thought; it’s natural for researchers to feel this way, however it feels unhelpful for this to be portrayed so lengthily onstage.

This is compounded by Hahn’s Nobel Prize win (for the nuclear fission discovery) being celebrated so joyfully by him and his fellow scientists, when a little earlier he had expressed a sincere regret that his lab had made this discovery - even suggesting he would have killed himself to prevent the knowledge being shared, had he known how it was going to be used. The juxtaposition is more than a little jarring.

The whole production feels a little unsure of itself in terms of tone; flecks of comedy in an out-and-out drama are always welcome, as this complements and enhances the more serious moments. However, when inappropriate laughter is drawn from some scenes - and intentional jokes fall flat in others - you do have to question whether everyone is on the same page. Given that a few lines were tripped over by different actors, perhaps the rehearsal period wasn’t quite as thorough as it could have been.

Unlike Katherine Moar’s new touring play, Farm Hall, which tells the same story but only features half of the scientists involved, Operation Epsilon includes the entire group (as well as the British soldier supervising them). Although you do get a decent idea of their personalities fairly early on, thanks to some standout performances, as many audience members will only have heard of Heisenberg and Hahn (at the most) it is rather difficult to keep track of all of the characters - plus with a roughly two-hour running time, it inevitably means that a handful of them are underused.

One way of shining a light on a play’s relevance is through its casting. It’s baffling to me that an all-white cast of eleven was deemed appropriate, when you can so easily enhance the storytelling by showing a bit of diversity; most of the actors bear little to no resemblance to the people they are portraying anyway, so this approach feels like the creative team just wants to appease the ‘historical accuracy’ crowd, rather than show any degree of creativity in this aspect of the show.

Janie E Howland’s dual-level set is beautifully put together, with an austere yet homely look that feels fitting for the situation. The only issue is that it is slightly too long, so when scenes take place in the Major’s office, anyone sat more than halfway down has to endure a crick in the neck to be able to watch them. Clancy Flynn’s lighting design is artful and highly effective, setting the mood when needed - and also used expertly to highlight certain characters in some scenes.

Nathaniel Parker has exactly the gravitas required for an individual such as Otto Hahn, a senior and well-respected figure in the German scientific community - Parker is at his absolute best when he is extracting every last bit of emotion from the script. Also impressive is Simon Chandler as Max von Laue, and Gyuri Sarossy captures Werner Heisenberg’s intellectually obsessive nature, constantly preoccupied with finding the mistake in his calculations. Nicholas Armfield is compelling as the sardonic Horst Korsching, and gets most of the laughs thanks to his excellent comic timing.

Thanks to these standout performances, it is an interesting watch; thankfully this all-male show doesn’t downplay the significance of Lise Meitner’s work, even though it threatens to early on, and it does make you think hard about the political nature of scientific research. This is perhaps the most important point to consider, as no researcher can ever be 100% objective and impartial - we simply need to trust that the work is done for the good of all, rather than on the behalf of a crazed minority. Lots to contemplate.

Operation Epsilon is at Southwark Playhouse (Elephant) until 21 October

Photo credit: Pamela Raith


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