Operation Epsilon is concerned with a niche piece of 1945 history that may potentially find a wider audience due to the popularity of recent Oppenheimer movie. Thanks to Cillian Murphy’s turn in Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster biopic, suddenly everyone has an opinion on the ethics of scientific research and the uses of nuclear fission.
The play is set after the fall of Nazi Germany, as the Allies carved up the Reich and sought justice and peace for the world at large. Except, it’s never that simple. At best, war creates moral ambiguities, and by its very nature, revels in murder and destruction. Ethics become very bendy once bombs start falling. In the post-war clean up, British and American intelligence services were keen to get the lowdown on the extent of Germany’s nuclear research. To this end, Germany’s best nuclear scientists were captured and dragged to England where they were detained at Farm Hall, an estate near Cambridge.
Amazingly, this actually happened and much of Alan Brody’s play is based on surviving transcripts from this period. All the rooms on the estate were bugged, so the Brits could tune in to the private and often highly charged chats between the German boffins. In many ways, it’s a perfect set up for a drama; 10 men trapped in a country home, isolated from their families, guilty by association and riven with rivalries and competing egos. Essentially, the audience are the ultimate eavesdroppers, witnessing the meltdowns and shifting loyalties. It’s surprisingly gripping. They are all forced to reckon with their associations with the Nazi regime. Their protestations of innocence fall flat simply by the fact that they remained in Germany. The fact that they were funded by Hitler and had to be a member of ‘the party’ in order to continue their research makes it murkier still.
Janie E Howland’s set design creates a chintzy 2-floor country home, stuffed with furniture and fussy fixtures. After a few minutes, it was easy to believe we were watching a vintage film from the 1940s. In an age of minimalism and digital chicanery, it’s a bold choice to go full-tilt, old-school naturalistic, especially with such a large cast in small space, but it actually works a treat.
The cast of 11 actors are uniformly strong and it’s a testament to Andy Sandberg’s skilful direction that even with the entire cast on stage, if never felt crowded or confusing. Nathaniel Parker brought dark, brooding gravity to the role of the Nobel prize winner, Professor Otto Hahn and Simon Bubb was perfectly clipped and politely disdainful as Major T.H. Rittner.
While Operation Epsilon is a window onto a specific period in military history, it resonates with today’s complexities. Once again, there is a war occurring in Europe and the explosion of AI and work on the human genome present ethical questions for researchers and those who fund them. Alan Brody’s Operation Epsilon is a glance into the past, but it’s also a thought-provoking mirror for where we are now.
Operation Epsilon is at the Southwark Playhouse until 21st October, Operation Epsilon – Southwark Playhouse
Reviewer: Stewart Who?
Reviewed: 20th September 2023
North West End UK Rating: