Going Nuclear – The Bomb: a partial history

You may remember back in February I did an interview with the artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre, Nicholas Kent.  The interview was about the Tricycle’s new season of plays and the not so traditional content for theatre productions – the history of the bomb.  As it did sound incredibly interesting and right up the alley of myself and your intrepid Pod Delusion host, we took the oppotunity to see all 10 of the plays on Sunday afternoon/evening.   We started the day tired and rather regretting that we had not decided to take the day off instead but before the first interval we were hooked.

There are 10 plays in total which span from the very beginning of the bomb to contemporary issues involving Iran, Israel and even Trident.  In fact it was the play about Trident – “The Letter of Last Resort” that was a particular highlight for both of us.  The entire program is broken down into two parts, which last about 3 hours each – so if you start at 2:30 like we did, you finish around 9:30 with a break in the middle to go get some dinner.  It may seem like a long time to spend at the theatre but it was worth it.  You can split your watching as well, watching one half one week and the other half another week.  However, I felt so immersed in the plays that it didn’t seem to take that long at all.

So.  Part 1

These plays take place in World War Two and Cold War era politics, from creating the bomb, to keeping the nuclear club small, to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  The highlight for us in this  half was “Seven Joys” which parodies the states limiting nuclear proliferation as a closed members clubs but with various individuals showing up by breaking in at various times.  The key figure is Wei, representing China who brings in a lot of the nuclear powers ‘through the kitchen’ as it were.  It was a fantastic parody because it really did get to the heart of the issue – keeping others without nuclear capability while those in the club get to keep theirs.  It was nuclear geo-politics in a nut shell but was also quite hilarious.  The tension about the Nuclear club and deterrence was a key theme in many of the plays, but treated with unique  perspectives in each iteration.

“Option” was my personal favourite of the first half, with a look at India’s nuclear program and the balancing of nuclear power with nuclear weapons.  It was told through the story of a professor, his former student and one of his current students.  It was just so heart wrenching to see the idea of nuclear power and power for his country, a country he identified with Gandhi and peace be corrupted to be used as a nuclear deterrent.  The complexities of deterrents was opened up to be brilliantly brought to a conclusion in the second half.  The look at other areas affected by debates about the bomb was refreshing in that it wasn’t just the US/UK/Russia (though they of course feature) but plays from the perspective of India, Iran, German/Austrian immigrants to the UK, Israel, South Africa and former Soviet satellites all wove the world politics surrounding nuclear weapons into a coherent narrative.

The first half ended with a very amusing take on the fall of the Soviet Union and what was being done with their nuclear assets.  In this case it was parodied by Ukranians with Irish accents and an old Russian with an English accent brokering a deal to sell the nuclear weapon.  I don’t know quite how to describe it other than hilarious and was a light hearted end (of sorts) to the first half.

Part 2 was rather more serious (though with inflections of humour throughout).  “There was a man.  There was no man” was a brilliant piece which shows both sides of Iranian/Israeli Nuclear tension through the interaction of two sets of brothers and sisters.  The complexity of family narratives interwoven with regional politics was brilliantly done.  It was tragic and heart wrenching and makes you wonder why there aren’t more plays like these.

Our personsal favourite though as mentioned earlier was “The Letter of Last Resort” which is a conversation between a newly elected PM and one of her staff from “arrangements” about the letter she needs to write to the captains of the Trident submarines about what to do if the UK is wiped out by a pre-emptive Nuclear attack.  It was enormously funny but really punched hard at the cost and use of Trident.  I think my favourite lines were what would be the most honest in that sort of situation:  “There has been a fuck up” she writes in one of the possible letters which received a roar of laughter.  It was just so well balanced and succinct in it’s encapsulation of the need/futility regarding nuclear deterrents.  It was definitely our highlight of the show.  I’m tempted to go again just to see that play.

I imagine anyone suggesting such a group of plays with this content could have been met with laughter or the assertion that it was impossible.  However, the playwrights and authors did such an astounding job of balancing artistic merit with geopolitics and the history of the bomb.  The are to be commended.  This isn’t a one sided look at the bomb, all the complexities regarding development and deterrent are examined in various guises.  It was truly an enjoyable and incredibly enlightening experience.  It has certainly set a new standard for the live performances that I expect to see from now on.

If you want to still go see the plays (and I really hope you do), check the Tricycle Theatre for tickets before the season ends on April 1.

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