Saturday 11th February 2012 (matinée) and Saturday 3rd March 2012 (evening)
Never one to shirk a challenge, Nicolas Kent has devoted the final few weeks of his tenure at the Tricycle to a ‘festival’ of all things nuclear, using the gallery, cinema and theatre for artwork, films and debate. At the centre is a series of ten new plays with the umbrella title ‘The Bomb – a partial History’. Although inspired by Shirley Williams, who drew his attention to the lack of debate about the forthcoming renewal of Trident, Kent is keen to point out in an interview with the Guardian that he doesn’t “do agitprop theatre….I want people to be challenged and make up their minds. Once I’ve chosen the subject, I do it without bias. My bias comes in the choice of subject – that shows where I stand.”
And true to his word, with the assistance of nine playwrights, and some additional verbatim dialogue by Robin Norton-Taylor, Kent has pulled together a history which may be partial, but is far from one-sided. Every play brings us a new perspective on the nuclear bomb, whether historical or international (or both), and although there is certainly a great deal of information and discussion, what really makes this series of plays is the insistence on understanding the human experience. As Kent has said “What theatre does best is to put people in other people’s shoes. I suppose theatre is a quest for total empathy.”
The structure is broadly chronological, and incorporates a great variety of styles. Beginning with a quintessentially English story, Zinnie Harris’s ‘The Message’ is a vignette which tells how two German scientists working on nuclear physics in Birmingham made an important discovery that would change the course of the war. Except that their voices were nearly silenced when they lost the appointment card which they needed to go before the war committee. Immediately followed by Ron Hutchinson’s ‘Calculated Risk’, which traces Britain’s decision to have its own nuclear weapon after the war, we then see the International picture with stories from India, Ukraine, Iran and North Korea.
The playwrights have wisely steered clear of the better known stories and debates around nuclear weapons. The cold war does not figure here (although Lee Blessing’s play ‘A Walk in the Woods’ on this subject was put on earlier in the year). Instead, we have a play by Amit Gupta about the paradoxical decision faced by Indian negotiators in 1968 when they had to decide whether or not to sign a non-proliferation treaty. The philosophical contortions they went through to justify having a nuclear weapon are played out by three scientists, who eventually accept that it is possible to have a ‘peaceful’ deterrent, which still honours the principles of their founder, Gandhi. Later, we see how North Koreans reacted to being placed on the ‘Axis of evil’ by the US, putting paid to a deal which would have seen them accept a large payment in exchange for decommissioning their weapon.
As each scene plays out, we can see common themes which are repeated with endless variations. No country thinks they will be the first to use their weapon. Each character voices the same cry, that they have no choice because of threats from their enemies. This is neatly conveyed in Lee Blessing’s farce ‘Seven Joys’, where the ‘nuclear club’ is transposed to a real gentlemen’s club whose membership keeps growing like a virus.
We are constantly reminded how often national boundaries and identities merge into each other – in Amit Gupta’s ‘Option’, one of the Indian negotiators is discredited due to having family in Pakistan; in Colin Teevan’s ‘There was a man, there was no man’, the central siblings are jews born in Iran, who have fled to Israel in the revolution, and the sister has subsequently become a Swiss National through marriage. In Ryan Craig’s ‘Talk talk fight fight’, this effect is particularly pointed when we see an Iranian negotiator talking in a London accent, before we realise that the scene is a ‘simulation’, and the delegates are in fact worried that one their team has ‘gone native’ by trying a little too hard to get inside the mind of the other side. With an excellent eleven-strong cast taking on all the roles, there are plenty of examples of cross-racial casting which are used to great effect, as David Yip travels seamlessly between China, Korea and the US.
After being bombarded with information, drama and mind-boggling paradoxes, the penultimate play, ‘The letter of last resort’ by David Greig, brings us back to the UK, with a two-hander that explores the real meaning of the ritual which each incoming Prime Minister must perform, informing the commander of each of the four nuclear submarines how to respond in the event of a nuclear attack. Full of biting humour, and multi-layered philosophical and ethical debate, we are left in no doubt about the true horror of the situation, in which bureaucrats prepare contingency plans for near-total annihilation of the country. Not since our visit to Kelvedon Hatch, a massive decommissioned nuclear bunker in Essex, has the insanity of the ‘nuclear deterrent’ been so starkly revealed.