The Mistake

Michael Mears
Essential Theatre
Tobacco Factory Theatres

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Michael Mears and Riko Nakazone in The Mistake Credit: Simon Richardson
Michael Mears as Leo Szilard in The Mistake Credit: Simon Richardson
Riko Nakazono as Nomura Shigeko in The Mistake Credit: Simon Richardson

A young scientist’s obsession with chain reactions results in the creation of the most notorious super-bomb in history. Michael Mears has created a sobering commentary on the events leading up to, and the consequences of, the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The story is told from three main angles: from Leo Szilard, one of the principal scientists involved; General Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gray; and Nomura Shigeko, a fictional, first-hand Japanese witness. Mears contrasts the arguments and experiences of each to produce an arresting, sometimes uncomfortable, but nevertheless powerfully thoughtful evening.

Riko Nakazono is perfect in the part of the young woman, Shigeko, an imagined character drawn from the accounts and diaries of Japanese ‘hibakusha’ (the term used when referring to atomic bomb survivors). She recalls the moments at 8:15AM on 6 August 1945 and the terrifying months that followed, as she searched for her family among the survivors and ruins of the former beautiful city. The visceral horror and rage of her experiences are movingly portrayed, not just by her silent scream on the discovery of her mother’s body, but also in her initial inability to recognise that the ‘shadows’ following the survivors were in fact their peeling skins being dragged behind them as they staggered to safety.

Intertwined with these first-hand accounts are the stories of the other two characters, both played by a highly watchable and versatile Mears. Szilard mostly connects with an imagined Shigeko in his nightmares; Tibbets spars with her in imagined journalistic interviews. The horrific consequences of unlocking the awesome power of nature cannot be argued with, but writer Mears uses this triangle of characters to lay out the route to how the world came to unleash such destructive forces. Szilard, a Hungarian émigré who escaped the Holocaust by one day, wants to put a stop to Nazi Germany and develop the atomic bomb before they do. Tibbets points to the numerical arguments of stopping a war with one bomb versus continuing a longer war with even more losses.

Marks Friend’s basic set and Claire Windsor’s sound design are critical to the production. A simple tatami mat and Japanese screen with the sound of schoolchildren singing is enough to create the everyday domestic simplicity of that fateful day. The screen becomes either the wings of the Enola Grey or the blackboard to explain theoretical concepts. Despite the simple and scaled-back nature of the set, we are still left with some harrowing images—the white lab coats become the dead bodies or the shed skin of the survivors. Sharp direction from Rosamunde Hutt and the two performers smoothly manage the transition between each character and the intersections.

There are no new arguments here and the differing views bring obvious attempts at balance, although the culpability of the Japanese authorities at the time are brushed over—there were no warnings or evacuation of children. Nevertheless, the very personal accounts, particularly the use of diaries from hibakusha, make for a uniquely compelling and gripping production. Particularly as the countdown to the bomb being released is simultaneously told from the point of view of those on the ground and those in the air.

Reviewer: Joan Phillips

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