Theatre review: Farm Hall

Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday 15 April
By Melissa Blease

“Microphones installed? Oh no, they’re not as cute as all that. I don’t think they know the real Gestapo methods; they’re a bit old fashioned in that respect.” The German Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg may have dedicated his life to studying the fundamental constituents of matter, its motion and behaviour through space and time, and the related entities of force (phew!) but when it came to assessing the capabilities British espionage, he wasn’t quite so smart.

In the summer of 1945, following the end of the Second World War in Europe, Heisenberg – along with six German contemporaries, luminaries in Germany’s atomic weapons programme and rivals to America’s scientists in the race to produce the world’s first atomic bomb – were detained in Farm Hall, a cottage attached to a stately home in remote Cambridgeshire, for seven months; what they didn’t know (or perhaps chose not to believe) was that the cottage was rigged with microphones in a bid to discover how much progress Germany had made towards producing its own A-bomb.

The transcripts of their conversations were sent as reports to London and the American consulate before being forwarded to the head honchos of the Manhattan Project, America’s vast technological endeavour to develop the world’s first weapon of mass destruction. In February 1992 the transcripts were declassified and published; last month, historian and first-time playwright Katherine Moar’s dramatisation of the Farm Hall conversations premiered at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre.

Dissecting, distilling and revising what must have been hours and hours of conversations between the six men can’t have been a quick or easy feat. But Moar has done a grand job of capturing not only the often esoteric technical conversations between the scientists, but some of the domestic details and time-filling exercises (a reading of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit; discussions about which board games to play, and with whom; the fixing-up of a broken piano; etc) that bring the real-life characters to – well, real life. 

Although all those characters share similar professional passions, we have six very different personalities at play here: Heisenberg, the alpha male leader of the pack (Alan Cox); the similarly domineering Weizsäker (Daniel Boyd), a man whose family had strong links to the Third Reich, but who wants to persuade the group to agree to claiming that none of them had never wanted to develop a German atom bomb; Diebner, the emotionally unwieldy nuclear physicist and apparently committed Nazi (Julius D’Silva); Hahn, a guilt-ridden chemist who today is widely regarded as the father of nuclear chemistry (Forbes Masson); Bagge, a student of Weizsäker and apologetic Nazi party member (Archie Backhouse); and Nobel prize-wining physicst Von Laue, a quiet but committed opponent of Hitler’s regime (David Yelland).

So… six fusty eggheads, one static set (the sitting room in a slightly run-down cottage) and, towards the drama’s denouement, the news that the first atomic bomb has been dropped on Hiroshima, wiping out almost 300,000 people in a cataclysmic storm of fire and dust. Heavy going, yes? Taking the play on themes alone, then heavy would be an understatement. But in the safe hands of Moar’s script, Stephen Unwin’s direction and an ensemble cast who bring humour, perspective, moral ambiguity, and idiosyncratic cerebral fireworks to their claustrophobic, stagnant situation (think a naggingly ominous take on Becket’s Waiting for Godot), our 90-minute residency at Farm Hallraces along from the light-hearted opening scenes to Heisenberg/Cox’s compelling and thought-provoking closing monologue without missing a beat. 

Values, friendship, career trajectories, fear, and the politics of war are all at play here, all of the time, and you don’t need to be an expert in quantum physics to understand the all-too human questions at the heart of the matter: what motivates us to do we do the things we do, or to take a particular path; and if we had the opportunity to change that path – or at least to rewrite our own history – would we take it? 

Julius D’Silva, Archie Backhouse, Forbes Masson, Alan Cox, Daniel Boyd and David Yelland. Photo by Alex Brenner.