Michael Mears’ play The Mistake, is rather like a particle fired at an atom. It launches as a story with a character whose life collides with another person, sparking a fission of further characters towards an inevitable explosive end – the Hiroshima Bomb.
Told from the perspective of different people caught up in the fall out of the Manhattan Project, the timelines of the characters dance around each other. At times they converge, at others splitting into new perspectives.
Although Mears has been developing this play for some time – premiering in Edinburgh in 2022 – it’s come at a culturally interesting time. Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer has dominated the year cinematically, with plenty of pre and post release discussion.
The Mistake, coming to Bristol in September 2023 is perfect timing. With renewed interest more generally in this period of history and the main players, The Mistake offers the perfect counterbalance to the movie hype. It gives us the Japanese experience. It’s the key perspective that has been missing.
Mears has merged together the story of nuclear physicist Leo Szilard with the pilot of the Enola Gay – Paul Tibbets – and Nomura Shigeko, a young Japanese woman living in Hiroshima. The writing draws on various articles and books, blending verbatim accounts with creative storytelling.
It was a chance encounter with a Guardian newspaper article in the early 2000s, that sparked the idea for the structure of The Mistake. An interview with Paul Tibbets juxtaposed with an interview with a Hiroshima survivor. It is through this, along with with the perspective of nuclear physicist Leo Szilard, we have our narrative structure.
Michael Mears in The Mistake
A rotating chalkboard on stage is used to clever effect. One side is the scientific exploration – the development and physics. The other side representing Hiroshima. It later becomes the wings of the Enola Gay – with scientific equations on top and Hiroshima underneath, representing converging timelines in a practical effect.
Mears performs both roles of Szilard and Tibbets, with a striking performance of the elderly pilot unrepentant at his actions.
Japanese actor Riko Nakazono, brings warmth and innocence to Nomura Shigeko, a resident in Hiroshima. It’s through her account, her diary, we experience the story of what happened. The cheery optimism she exudes at the start of the day is heartbreaking. Her love for her city that she believes has been spared due to its beauty perhaps as bleak as the moment the bomb falls.
Nuclear physicist Leo Szilard, who very fatefully came up with the idea of nuclear chain reaction takes us on the Road to Damascas journey. The mistake. He is driven by his worry that the Nazis might come up with nuclear weapons first. An understandable fear considering the Jewish Szilard was forced to flee Germany when Hitler became Chancellor. Ultimately Szilard went on to found the Council for Livable World. His fear and worry about the impact of using an atomic bomb overriding his dissonance about driving new scientific discoveries.
A lot is packed into the show, which runs at around 80 minutes. It’s a historical drama, but we don’t sit and passively observe. The writing challenges us to think. To question the ethics behind scientific discoveries and breakthroughs. To concern ourselves with the power and the politics that ultimately controls that. The conclusion The Mistake leads us to is unequivocal.
It’s in the description of death and destruction, the factual descriptions of injuries sustained. The tales of the bodies of children – symbolised by tiny chairs, lab coats and paper bags. Nomura Shigeko’s journey through this valley of death to her own untimely demise of radiation poisoning. A diary which stops as suddenly as clocks at 8.15am.
One of the most striking moments in the play comes with Nakazono’s silent scream. It’s captured like the work of Nick Ut, almost like an eerie black and white photograph of wartime horror. We don’t hear the scream. But we do feel it.
Yes at times The Mistake is bleak, but it also manages to remain a gripping historical drama that doesn’t overwhelm. You don’t end up leaving feeling the world is doomed. There is hope.
The Mistake does what theatre does best. It makes you think. It challenges what you think you believe, what you think you know. It redresses historical bias and balance to the way we hear others’ histories and stories and gives them a chance to be heard.
For more information and further tour dates for The Mistake: https://michaelmears.org/tour-dates-for-the-mistake/
For more shows at Tobacco Factory Theatres: https://tobaccofactorytheatres.com/
Cast and Creatives
Performed by Michael Mears and Riko Nakazono
Written by Michael Mears
Directed by Rosamunde Hutt
Sound design by Claire Windsor
Set design by Mark Friend
Lighting design for London and tour – Richard Williams – based on George Tarbuck’s original 2022 design for Edinburgh
Voice coach – Kate Godfrey
Stage management – Kelly Boudreau
Media – Valerie Potter
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