“This is not just a bigger, bangier bomb,” says one character in this excellent programme of short plays. No indeed. The nuclear bomb represents something infinitely more chilling: the capacity of humanity to destroy itself. The implications of its invention have been with us for nearly seven decades and for Nicolas Kent, outgoing artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre, the whole of his life. He explains in his programme note to The Bomb – A Partial History that he was born in 1945 and grew up through the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis and the emergence of CND.
As he leaves the Tricycle, the nuclear threat has moved back up the political agenda, with the current anxieties about Iran’s nuclear programme. But it is fitting in more ways than one that this ambitious project should be his swan song. The belief that theatre should be a political forum has fired a significant strand of his work, producing the pioneering tribunal plays and The Great Game (a day-long festival of drama on the history of Afghanistan). The Bomb exemplifies his belief that theatre can tackle such exacting issues with sympathy, humour and urgency.
Like The Great Game, the programme works through bite-sized dramas: 10 in this case, arranged into two parts or “blasts”, covering from 1940 to the present day. It’s a great way of coming at such taxing material: the range of voices, styles and subjects injects energy and pace. And while each of the plays is very different in tone, common themes ripple through them, as the characters struggle to find a moral footing in this strange new world. This is not so much a history of the bomb as a history of our relationship with the implications of its existence.
We start then in 1940 with Zinnie Harris’s play in which two nervous scientists, one Austrian, one German, hover in Whitehall, fretting about their shabby shoes and broken glasses. Should they leave? “If we go home, the Germans will win the war,” says one. That is because the two scientists are Rudolf Peierls (Rick Warden) and Otto Frisch (Daniel Rabin) and the detailed calculations they have in their possession are of monumental significance. Harris brings a droll humour to the situation and neatly interweaves the personal and the political.
There is thoughtful, intimately focused work too from Amit Gupta, whose play Option offers a study of an Indian scientist (Paul Bhattacharjee, movingly dignified) struggling to hang on to his pacifist principles. Colin Teevan examines two sibling relationships torn by the current hostility between Iran and Israel. Other writers bring bold comic flair to the situations they depict. There’s a sharp satire from Lee Blessing, which depicts the arms race as a rapidly expanding gentlemen’s private club. Meanwhile, John Donnelly contributes a vividly funny black comedy about a poor Ukrainian family trying, ineptly, to sell a left-over Soviet missile to international arms dealers.
Best of all is David Greig’s very funny, but chilling drama, in which a future prime minster (Belinda Lang) struggles to write a “letter of last resort”, giving orders for a ballistic missile submarine in the event of Britain having been obliterated. Greig picks his way nimbly through the arguments and his ability to sum up both the absurdity and horror of the situation is the highlight of the evening.
A versatile cast juggle characters, while Polly Sullivan’s minimal set includes sobering back projections of explosions that quietly underscore the gravity of the debates on stage. Some of the writing is patchy or knotty, but that notwithstanding, this a vivid, serious examination of one of the most pressing issues of our time.