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REVIEW: The Mistake by Michael Mears offers a gripping account of the horror of Hiroshima

The Mistake, The Bear Pit Theatre, Stratford, 20th September and on tour – book tickets here

IT’S more than a bit rum that the most famous retelling of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is the recent Oppenheimer film.

Don’t get me wrong, the film’s great, Cillian Murphy plays ‘the father of the atomic bomb’ with, er, aplomb – and it’s an intriguing watch. But what about the 140,000 people killed in an instant by Little Boy? They only get a look in as a guilty hallucination in Oppenheimer’s head… I mean, come on!

The Mistake, a more modest but no less mighty production at the Bear Pit last week did much to correct the imbalanced narrative of the Hollywood blockbuster, and ultimately packs far more philosophical and emotional gut-wrenching punch. More bang for your bucks, if you’ll excuse a withering pun.

The Mistake
The Mistake

A small black box theatre attached to a church in Stratford doesn’t perhaps seem like it would lend itself to telling the cataclysmic events of 6th August 1945, but it turns out you don’t need special effects and a $100 million budget (a la Oppenheimer) if you’ve got heart, soul, a fine pair of actors, and amazingly inventive stagecraft.

Written by veteran National, West End and RSC actor Michael Mears, The Mistake is named for how the bombing is remembered on an inscription in the city’s Peace Park.

It cleverly tells the story of both the invention of the bomb and all the characters, politicians and scientists involved in that. It also goes into second-by-agonising-second details of its dropping on Hiroshima, and its aftermath, including the harrowing stories of what happened to those killed and the survivors. All in 80 minutes!

It’s a two-hander with Mears playing 12 roles – including, significantly, pilot of the Enola Gay, General Paul Tibbets, who dropped the bomb; as well as nuclear physicist Leo Szilard who first conceived nuclear chain reaction, partly motivated by his desire to stop Hitler, but who deeply regretted the use of atomic bombs on Japan, and spent the remainder of his life advocating for peace.

The Mistake
The Mistake

Japanese actor Riko Nakazono takes on the other parts, but mainly bomb survivor Nomura Shigeko.

It starts both brightly and full of dread. The morning of 6th August begins typically in the Shigeko household. Nomura is beaming with positivity, living a happy life as a recently engaged young woman. Even as she arrives at her repetitive factory job, making earplugs for the war, she radiates joy as she battles boredom by thinking of her soldier boyfriend and brother.

A hideous foreboding is conjured as while we are enjoying Nomura’s world we see Tibbets flying over the blue skies of the city preparing to drop the bomb. “Do you see any people down there?” he asks the crew. “Nope, me neither.”

Sonic boom.

Nomura is blown up in slo-mo, before being trapped by rubble as the bomb lays waste Hiroshima and kills her fellow workers.

The whole thing – bomber and bombed – is incredibly rendered with just a soundtrack and a few inventive props: the Enola Gay (so named after the pilot’s mum) is Mears in pilot goggles holding a cane with a replica B-29 bomber on it which doubles up as a joy stick; while the chaos surrounding Nomura is evoked by a gracefully tumbling stepladder.

The Mistake
The Mistake

The horror of the story as it unfolds is gripping. Skin dripping from victims’ arms, the horror of a pair of feet melted into the pavement, bodies floating in Hiroshima River… Unimaginable sights made agonisingly real by Nakazono’s powerful performance and the imagistic poeticness of the wonderful script.

Without feeling heavy or preachy, The Mistake also questions the political and personal justifications for dropping the bomb.

Years later pilot Tibbets is confronted by a niece of Nomura at a book signing… it turns the story into philosophical reflection. Who has our sympathies? What are our on thoughts on nuclear deterrents?

Days later the questions still swirl, but with one thought is profoundly uppermost: let’s make sure ‘the mistake’ never happens again... if we can.

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