Review: The Mistake at Arcola Theatre

Tuesday April 18th 2023 at Arcola Theatre, London


Reviewer: Emma Dorfman

In American schools, World War II’s Eastern Front conclusion is given but a few lines in the textbooks. But Michael Mears’ two-hander, The Mistake, interweaves verbatim material through a narrative that oscillates between the creation of the nuclear bomb and the bombing of Hiroshima, giving this event and its aftereffects their full due. The beefy text is beautifully balanced by director Rosamunde Hutt’s infusion of evocative imagery, and pointed performances by both Mears and Emiko Ishii add clarity to a somewhat unfocused narrative.

Though there are only two actors on stage, a wide variety of characters are given air time in The Mistake. The audience encounters characters like Keiji Nakazawa, a survivor of the tragedy, alongside scientists Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi, and Albert Einstein and then, of course, the man who actually piloted the plane that dropped the bomb: General Paul Tibbets.

Through careful writing, Mears successfully touches upon the ethical and moral positions of three different perspectives. There are those that would probably strongly advocate for nuclear disarmament today (Keiji), there are those that would be “on the fence” (the scientists and physicists), and there are those that don’t see an issue at all (General Tibbets). The actual testimony from these characters illuminates these points of view without trying too hard. One quote that stands out, for instance, is General Tibbets’: “There’s no morality in warfare.”

Verbatim theatre is a tricky general to nail down for a variety of reasons, but Mears continually finds a way to weave in testimony that speaks to all of the imagery and metaphor required of theatre. Rosamunde Hutt, as director, complements and amplifies this further. At one point, for example, Keiji recounts the immediate days after the bombing. She talks about the survivors, walking like zombies with their own skin hanging off of them. As she speaks, Mears (at this point, as Leo Szilard) takes Leo’s long johns in his hands and slowly shakes the fabric.

It is just enough to conjure the horror Keiji must have met with her own eyes, but it isn’t too literal that it sends the audience into shock. Another moment, as well, when Keiji and her fiancée are looking for survivors, stands out. Mears takes out a few white paper bags, with holes cut out for eyes. He places them atop a few discarded lab coats from scenes with the scientists. Now, the ghosts of Hiroshima are fully realised.

Though there were successful directorial moments, however, there were moments as well where perhaps the narrative could have been tightened even more. As its structure was unfolding, the two central stories- Keiji’s and Leo’s- slowly came to the forefront. In the first half of the piece, at times, Leo and General Tibbets’ narratives threatened to overpower Keiji’s.

With a show full of poetic imagery, it is difficult to ignore the power dynamic we see onstage: a small Asian woman set against a tall White man. At times, it appeared that the narratives were fighting against one another, each one vying for more attention. As Mears’ carefully written structure finds its footing, though, we find more moments where these two don’t have to compete with one another, but rather, they can connect and even share a mutual experience. This occurs at several points during Leo’s dream sequences, in which he finds himself haunted by his own creation (the concept of the nuclear chain reaction). In these dreams, he interacts with Keiji and sees what she sees amid the rubble. He looks on in abject horror, for he is able to finally, tangibly confront his own abstract invention.

Ultimately, this is also where the audience can connect the most with this narrative—events that occurred over 70 years ago now. It is already nearly impossible to imagine such a profound nuclear tragedy occurring today, but only nearly. Russia and North Korea still loom large, waiting in the wings with who knows what technology at their disposal. As I mused on The Mistake’s contemporary resonance, I couldn’t help but consider these global players and the idea that we may not be too far from Hiroshima after all.T

The Mistake is at Arcola Theatre, London until April 22nd 2023 – more information and tickets can be found here.

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