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Review: Operation Epsilon (Southwark Playhouse Elephant)

Review by Sam Waite


Those of you keeping up with recent blockbusters will know that in 1945, an atomic bomb launched from the United States devastated Hiroshima, Japan, and its surrounding area. Less well-known, having been kept classified at the time, ten of Germany's top scientists were detained in the UK around this time, to be mined for information on their own research on uranium and its potential uses. Operation Epsilon, now open at the Southwark Playhouse Elephant, owes its name to the real operation, and its content to the covert recordings made during their incarceration.

Opening in the summer of ’45, the Nazis have lost the war and the German scientists, whether members of the party or not, are known to have worked for the regime regardless of their own views. Operation Epsilon is simple enough – the ten men are left to bicker, discuss, and ponder their research in the comfortable, expansive Farm Hall, which British intelligence secretly records the conversations. During the six months they're at the Hall, the Americans beat them to creating and using an atomic bomb, leaving the group emotionally fraught through implying a lesser scientific mastery, and through the accusation that they themselves had intended to create a weapon of mass destruction.

An increasingly clear theme in Alan Brody’s text is morality, and whether not having directly aligned oneself with evil lessens accountability. Future Nobel Prize winner Otto Hahn feels an instant guilt for the destruction in Hiroshima, while many of the others state firmly that they had only worked on uranium’s prospects in an engine, and others insist that, had the idea of the bomb been presented, they would have shifted their focus. Brody does an admirable job of lending distinct traits to eleven central figures (the scientists and the general assigned to watch over them), but with a runtime below two hours it can be hard to keep track of who is who and what about them we need to remember.

Standout performances come from Nathaniel Parker as Hahn, Simon Chandler as Max con Laue, and Gyumri Sarossy as Werner Heisenberg. With any sizeable group it's only natural that some will fall into de facto leadership positions and draw more focus, and the three actors all bring levels of depth and complication to their roles. Matthew Duckett, Nicholas Armfield and Leighton Pugh each bring a sparkling, if occasionally one-note, personality to their respective roles, adding to the mix of humour found in the play’s more slice-of-life moments. The cast are largely likeable, and it's a shame that their isn't enough time for each of them to truly dig into their characters.

The younger generation of researchers are chiefly represented by Jamie Bogyo's Friedrich von Weizsackër, who has a student-teacher dynamic with Heisenberg and a spiteful, antagonistic one with von Laue. Given little to do outside of these key interactions, Bogyo unfortunately struggles to connect with the character, never fully disappearing into the role.

Andy Sandberg’s direction keeps the cast from appearing to overcrowd the small space, and nimbly handles the group discussions that find each and every one of them throwing in input. This is, of course, no easy task when there are ten differing opinions to put across to an audience likely unfamiliar with these scientists’ lives and work. While suitable to the text and difficult to avoid without creating the aforementioned crowding, the blocking does tend to place each man in his designated spot and keep him there, leaving the dialogue itself to do the bulk of the heavy lifting.

Janie E Howland has designed a stage that suggests the comparative grandeur of Farm Hall within the Playhouse’s smaller auditorium. With two levels, a large living space takes up the main stage, while two rooms upstairs are utilised as representatives of (I would assume) multiple bedrooms and private spaces. At the far left (stage right) is a small office space utilised for select scenes and operation-based exposition. The set is beautifully crafted and immediately sets the period and rough location, but with the sheer width I did find it jarring to have to shift my focus quite so far in one direction or the other.

Sound design, from Chris Drohan, helps to ease us into the fictionalised world of Operation Epsilon and to put across an authentically distorted BBC broadcast when the Hiroshima incident is reported to the world. Dewey Dellay’s music helps to set the scene and, in particular, to immerse us back into the story after the interval, the tune instantly recognisable and welcoming, even with its connection to troubling historical events. Lighting design is also used primary to set the scene and suggest the appropriate mood, with faces being starkly lit while the rest of the stage goes blank to keep the audience’s focus on the emotional shifts or, in an opening tableau, introduction of each of the characters.

Well-written and admirably interested in sharing a less widely discussed part of military history, Operation Epsilon has been made with a clear understanding of the period and the significance of the events its story surrounds. Where I struggled with the number of important players, and lack of focus on most individual arcs, there was a clear love for the work elsewhere in the audience, and I can't help but admire the willingness to explore the perspective of those who considered themselves neither good nor evil, not truly part of the war itself. Morality is complicated, and I'm glad to see a willingness to explore this in the arts.

Operation Epsilon plays at the Southwark Playhouse Elephant until October 21st.

Photos by Pamela Raith



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