WITH the news full of details of a 21-year-old American serviceman who decided to leak confidential documents including vital information about the conflict in Ukraine, there could hardly be a better time to see Katherine Moar’s debut play, Farm Hall, at Bath Theatre Royal.
It is based on the true story of ten German scientists captured and sent to live in a (bugged) Cambridgeshire house at the end of the European part of the Second World War, where they stayed from early June 1945 to January 1946. Codenamed Operation Epsilon, the idea was to listen in to their conversations and discover just how close they had come to building an atomic bomb. The Allied bombing of Hiroshima in August 1945 shocked them all, but several were more surprised that the Americans could have succeeded in making bombs where the Germans had failed.
This might seem a heavy subject for a play, even after Michael Frayn’s 1998 successful Copenhagen, but historian Katherine Moar has found a magnetically theatrical way into the complexities. Focussing on six of the scientists and setting the action in the panelled sitting room where they gathered to talk, it starts as the arrogant and charismatic Weizacker is directing a production of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, and the reluctant actors’ reactions to the process set their characters for the rest of the play.
In short scenes, these brilliant men expose their emotions, their attitudes to the Fatherland and to war, to the place of science in the academic world and their relationships with one another. As the war in the Far East progresses, they debate the likelihood of their safe return to their homes and families.
David Yelland is Max von Laue, who won his Nobel Prize in 1914, with Forbes Masson as chemist Otto Hahn, credited as the discoverer of nuclear fission, theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg (Alan Cox), nuclear physicist and outcast of the group Kurt Deibner, played by Julius D’Silva, with Archie Backhouse as Erich Bagge and Daniel Boyd as the irrepressible Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker.
Farm Hall is a brilliant exploration of intellectual conflict and collaboration, patriotism and humanitarianism, and it maintains its dramatic momentum for all of its 90 minutes. It started its life as a rehearsed reading at Bath’s Ustinov Studio in September 2019, and after a much-lauded month at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre, is at Bath until 15th April. Although no more dates have been finalised, this will undoubtedly be the start of a long and successful life on stage.
Photographs by Alex Brenner.