FARM HALL at Jermyn Street Theatre
“Stephen Unwin’s direction presents a deeply authentic sense of period, supported by Ceci Calf’s gently peeling wallpapered set and forties costumes”
Katherine Moar’s Farm Hall is a history play about six German physicists detained in a Cambridge great house in 1945. Directed by Stephen Unwin, and performed by the kind of acting talent theatregoers have come to expect at the Jermyn Street Theatre, audience members may be forgiven for thinking that they are about to watch the sequel to Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. It is true that both plays are concerned with the practical, and moral consequences, of making an atomic bomb. Yet Copenhagen and Farm Hall are entirely different plays, even though both feature Werner Heisenberg as a central character.
In Farm Hall, Moar uses her historical training to present a play based on indisputable facts. The six physicists (three of them Nobel prize winners) were detained by victorious Allied Forces at the end of World War Two. The house they occupy is extensively bugged, and their conversations transcribed—rich material for historians. Nevertheless, these conversations by themselves do not make compelling theatre, even when the subject matter revolves around whether a world could live or die. In Farm Hall, we are presented with a series of domestic situations in which five theoretical physicists (and one experimental physicist) play at amateur dramatics, fix a broken piano, and play chess, among other mundane matters. Their discussions range, as you might expect, from missing their families and their homeland, to dodging around the subject of whether they were members of, and believers in, the Nazi Party.
Throughout the first act in Farm Hall, we focus on the history. But the urgency that makes a drama compelling, the pressing need for action, is largely absent until the beginning of Act Two. At this point, the drama comes together because the unthinkable has happened. The Americans have built and detonated an atomic bomb over Japan. The abstract concerns of theoretical physics are suddenly replaced by pressing issues of moral philosophy—and geopolitics. The world is now a few seconds to midnight away from nuclear annihilation. The difference between Frayn’s play and Moar’s is that Frayn gets to the heart of the matter right from the start. He sees that a representation of the physicists’ concerns works better in an abstract place, rather than a real one. His title Copenhagen is ironic, Moar’s Farm Hall is not.
Despite the lack of dramatic tension for much of Farm Hall, however, there is plenty to admire in this production at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Stephen Unwin’s direction presents a deeply authentic sense of period, supported by Ceci Calf’s gently peeling wallpapered set and forties costumes. The actors do not have German accents, but Unwin is wise to steer his actors away from anything that might distract from the weighty subjects under discussion. The performances are terrific in this well rounded ensemble. Alan Cox as Heisenberg in Farm Hall has the difficult job of differentiating his character from the Heisenberg in Copenhagen. In Farm Hall, Cox plays the role as just one of a group of men thrown together in difficult circumstances. Nevertheless, Cox’s Heisenberg is suitably complex, conflicted, and holds the drama together, as expected. Julius D’Silva’s deftly managed Diebner is the foil in the group. He is the experimental physicist (and therefore looked down on by the theorists.) Diebner is also an acknowledged member of the Nazi Party, full of angry justification. Forbes Masson’s Hahn carries the guilt for all of them, and is both sad and joyful at the news he has been awarded a Nobel Prize. David Yelland’s Von Laue, Archie Backhouse’s Bagge, and Daniel Boyd’s Weizsäcker round out a group widely separated in age and politics. They give convincing performances as men caught up in events that had little to do with their work as physicists, and yet everything to do with the future of the world. These characters in Farm Hall makes us think the unthinkable: if we had the knowledge of how to destroy the planet, how would we use it?
Farm Hall is the stuff of nightmares, set in relative comfort in a Cambridgeshire stately home. It is this paradoxical presentation, and the strong sense of period, that will make the story attractive to fans of history plays.
Reviewed on 14th March 2023
by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Alex Brenner
Previously reviewed at this venue: