Mary Woodward at the Festivals

The Mistake, The Space on North Bridge – Argyll Theatre, Venue 36, Review:

**** (4 stars)

Michael Mears has a history of bringing uncomfortably challenging theatre to the Fringe.  In 2016 that he first brought This Evil Thing, a horrifying account of the treatment of conscientious objectors in the First World War, some of whom were still in prison many months after the war’s end.  His passionately anti-war play has since been very well received in the UK, the USA and who knows where else.

This year Michael’s play couldn’t be more timely.  Using the actual words of some of the scientists, politicians and military personnel who were involved in the creation and use of the bomb, and contrasting these with verbatim testimonies from survivors in Hiroshima, the audience sees the chain of events that led to the bomb’s development and is forced to confront the appalling consequences of the its deployment. 

Of course, one knew it was horrible – but hearing someone describe how survivors’ skin peeled and hung off them, and that their own hair fell off and their face developed purple spots; to hear of the frantic search for family members and the impossibility of helping the innumerable suffering survivors of the blast passed on the way; to confront the fact that so many of the dead were innocent children; all this vividly brings home the suffering inflicted on Hiroshima.

Leo Szilard, the Jewish Hungarian scientist who first had the idea of splitting atoms to release previously undreamed-of amounts of energy recounts the steps by which his idea was turned into hideous reality.  On the way, we see his own journey from proud inventor of a new source of power which he hopes could be used in a weapon to defeat Hitler in Europe to the horrified realisation that this weapon could be the catalyst for an uncontrollable nuclear arms race that could lead to the annihilation of the whole world. 

Mears is brilliant in his lightning-swift changes of costume, accent and persona as he portrays the many men encountered in Szilard’s narraitive.  Perhaps the most chilling is General Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the US plane that dropped the bomb, who seems to refuse to accept any responsibility for the horrors unleashed by the bomb..  According to him, he was merely there to do the job of flying the plane (which he named after his mother) and getting his crew safely out of harm’s way once the bomb had been sent on its way.

Emiko Ishii joins Michael Mears on stage to tell the story from the Japanese point of view.  The morning of August 6 1945 was beautiful and bright: an earlier air raid warning triggered by the flight over the city of three US weather planes had been cancelled by the ‘all clear’ and adults and children alike were going about their daily business, completely unprepared for what was about to happen.  Nomura Shigeko left her grandmother’s home to go to the factory where she and many others make earplugs for their soldiers; her mother is going to visit her father, who is in hospital; and she has just received a brief but most welcome letter from her fiancé.  What a survivor’s diary said was described as “a reconnaissance plane” flew over, and suddenly the world exploded.

Both sides of the story are book-ended with the present-day questioning of General Tibbets by a young Japanese woman, as she attempts to get him to admit his guilt or at least show some remorse.   She becomes increasingly emotional: he remains unmoved.

The military version of things:  “There’s no morality in warfare” (i.e. nothing is ‘right’ or wrong’); “my conscience is completely clear”; “I flew the plane, I didn’t drop the bomb”; “if it had been a cloudy day over Hiroshima, the bomb would have been dropped on one of the other three potential targets”; “four Japanese cities (the potential targets) were left untouched so that scientists could study the after-effects of the bomb in isolation”; “the children shouldn’t have been there – they should have been in shelters”; “yes, many people died, or suffered: but the lives of many people, both American and Japanese, were saved”; “the Japanese should have surrendered sooner”…

The human viewpoint finds it impossible to accept that the use of nuclear weapons is ever justified.   Nomura Shigeko initially hates the Americans for the suffering they have inflicted on the people of Hiroshima, but comes to realise that the real enemy is not the Americans, but war itself.  She manages to accept her mother’s message “Don’t waste your precious life hating the enemy”

The final journal entry of one woman who survived the blast but later died of its effects was “I wanted you to know and feel my experiences: I am sorry if you feel distress”.

The inscription in Japanese on the Memorial Cenotaph in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park is open to a number of possible interpretations, one of which is reflected in the title of this show:

Rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the mistake

I only hope and pray that this is true.

The Mistake, The Space on North Bridge – Argyll Theatre, Venue 36 for tickets go to: The Mistake | Theatre | Edinburgh Festival Fringe (edfringe.com)

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