Farm Hall, Katherine Moar’s debut play has come to Richmond Theatre, following its London opening earlier this year and is playing all week.
The play is set in a rather shabby room in a country house where some of Germany’s finest scientific minds were held captive during the final days of World War Two. Inspired by true events, Farm Hall dramatises the thrilling story of Operation Epsilon: one of the most fascinating and unexplored episodes of World War Two.
It is Summer 1945: Hitler is dead, but war in the Pacific rages on. The British government has detained six of Germany’s most gifted nuclear scientists – including three Nobel Prize winners – at Farm Hall, a fading stately home in Cambridgeshire. Extracting these eminent scientists from what they were horrifically meant to be doing and putting them into a far blander setting makes for some interesting moral dilemmas for both the audience and the individuals on stage;
“War is ugly, but the work is beautiful.” (discuss).
Can you build an atomic bomb with restraint?
What would have happened if they’d said no to the Führer?
Their 7 month internship offers a little piece of invaluable history and certainly offers a lot of “what if” food for thought.
They entertain themselves with some redacted newspapers, a broken piano and a few games – they’re disappointed not to have Monopoly, but make do with chess and cards. As the days merge we see the human element appear behind the facades of these extremely intelligent, bored, funny, morally compromised men and begin to understand why each of them hold grudges or are behaving in a certain way and get to learn a little more about their history. It’s a cleverly adapted script and pretty captivating throughout the 90 minutes (we had an interval, but I’m not sure they did when it opened at Jermyn Street Theatre).
One scene, when two of them pair up to discuss an experiment involving a long and complicated conversation about effervescence, globules, critical thickness, equilibrium, oxygen and so on…..leading us to believe they are discussing nuclear physics. It’s funny when it turns out to be something else entirely – I won’t spoil the joke, it’s quite a good one.
When discussing writing letters to their loved ones, they mull over what can and can’t be said.
“Weather surprisingly fine” was even ruled out on the basis that “there’s only one country in the world where fine weather is surprising.”
The subject matter lurches from the menial “do we care about cricket?” (there was a resounding “NOOOOO” ) to the vital. The cricket reference suggesting the part of their tranquil summer that is shattered by the news that the Americans have succeeded where the Germans failed. There’s a lot of finger pointing, justifying and unravelling the reasons behind working for the Nazi’s and Hitler in general. It’s a philosophical, existential play at the heart and throws up a lot of big subjects to go away and think about – it feels especially relevant given what’s going on in the Middle East right now when they discuss how much better their research and results would have been if they’d been able to collaborate with their Jewish colleagues and they list maybe 10, including Einstein.
The second half is naturally consumed with the difficult news that “America have built an atomic bomb and dropped it on Japan.” Some are disbelieving, some horrified, suicidal even….some jealous. It raises all sorts of issues about Uranium 235 and how to behave in a war and of course these brilliant, flawed men were at the heart of the horror. They discuss how they could have obliterated London. Every reaction to the unfolding events was captured thanks to the British clandestine surveillance of their “guests”. Unbeknownst to the scientists, every inch of Farm Hall was bugged during their stay – they considered it at one point and dismissed it as not likely as the Brits were not very good at spying in general. As they all depart, suitcases in hand, it made me want to go away and find out what happened to them all.
The cast work extremely well together in bringing this extraordinary true story to life and in bringing out the individual characters. William Chubb (The Sandman, Quiz, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell), who plays the role of Von Laue, Alan Cox (Say My Name, Mrs Dalloway, Housewife, 49) as Heisenberg, Daniel Boyd (On Chesil Beach, Tiger House) as von Weizsäcker, Forbes Masson (EastEnders, Catastrophe) as Hahn, Julius D’Silva (The Crown, The Ten Commandments), as Diebner and George Jones (The Mousetrap, EastEnders) as Bagge.
They should definitely all have been smoking though especially whilst they debated such heavy topics as “what is the right thing to do?” and “what’s right for me is not right for my family or my country”.
Playwright Katherine Moar studied history at the University of Edinburgh and Darwin College, Cambridge. She is currently studying for a PhD at King’s College London. Farm Hall is her first play.
Stephen Unwin is an award-winning British theatre and opera director. He has directed almost 100 professional productions and worked with many well-established actors and singers, as well as developing the careers of many younger ones. In 1993, he founded English Touring Theatre, for whom he directed more than 30 productions, many of which transferred to London. He was Artistic Director of the new Rose Theatre in Kingston from 2008 to January 2014. Stephen has taught in conservatoires and universities in Britain and America. He has written 10 books on theatre and drama, 5 original plays and many translations.
A shout out to Ceci Calf who did the Set and costume design (because I know her and she’s doing really well) and lighting design is by Ben Ormerod and sound design by John Leonard.