Tom Morton-Smith was never any good at physics at school. “I was rubbish at science,” he concedes with a laugh, “and I have the opposite of a mathematical brain.”
It’s a surprising admission from a playwright whose 2015 breakout hit, Oppenheimer, explored the tragic life of the visionary atom bomb inventor, and whose new play for the RSC will yet again grapple with colliding atoms and their explosive consequences. The Earthworks is set just before the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was switched on at Cern in Switzerland.
Morton-Smith is keen to stress that it’s a very different beast to Oppenheimer. That was a panoramic history play that took five years to research and write, and featured a cast of 22. The Earthworks is more of a human story based around the interaction between a scientist working at Cern and a journalist reporting on the historic moment.
“It’s smaller, but in some ways grander,” says Morton-Smith. “It’s more about exploring the whole idea of mass and weight and things that we ascribe meaning to in our lives. It’s less about the particle science of the LHC and more an excuse to use that as a jumping-off point to say something interesting and pertinent to grief and relationships, and the way that we carry ourselves in the world.”
The Earthworks began life as a short, nine-page work which Morton-Smith wrote alongside Oppenheimer. The plays were written in his mornings and evenings while balancing his day job at Waterstones bookshop in Greenwich, south-east London. He would use The Earthworks as a warm-up, to get into the rhythm of writing, before going back to redraft Oppenheimer.
He had not thought much about developing it into a full-length play, but it had always lingered in the back of his mind. “I kept returning to it and thinking that I would like to spend more time with these characters,” he says. “The thing you’re looking for when you’re writing is that point when the characters just start talking to each other and it doesn’t feel like writing, it feels like you’re earwigging on a conversation. And that’s how this play always felt for me.”
It was only after the success of Oppenheimer, which transferred to the West End, that he happened to mention The Earthworks to the RSC literary manager, who read it and passed it to the deputy artistic director Erica Whyman. She was instantly taken with it and commissioned it for the company’s Spring Mischief festival which runs this month. It’s part of a double bill with another new play, Myth, by Matt Hartley and Kirsty Housley.
This longer redrafted version of The Earthworks follows the characters over the course of the night as they move from a bar in Geneva to a hotel, where they try to wake Peter Higgs to get him to explain the science of the collider. There is also what Morton-Smith describes as a “sci-fi” element to the new work, which touches on the idea of slowing down the speed of light.
Morton-Smith admits he was not prepared for the success of Oppenheimer, which finally allowed him, after 10 years of writing with little critical attention, to give up his job and commit to playwriting full-time. Raised in East Grinstead, he didn’t come from a “particularly theatrical background” but credits his desire to write plays to his grandfather, who worked in a paper mill.
“Growing up, there was paper everywhere,” he recalls. “Every time I saw my grandad he’d bring a big wodge of coloured sugar paper, so I did not want for stationery as a kid. I was always writing stuff and making and drawing things. I just always had the tools to spend my life scribbling.”
He admitted that the small-scale nature of The Earthworks was unusual for him, and that he tended towards making his plays as epic and grand in scale as possible. “I’d always wanted to write big,” he says. “I think my first play spanned 1,000 years. You can do epic so well on stage because you’re asking the audience to fill in the gaps with you. You can have a nuclear explosion on stage, you can demonstrate particle physics, because you are working with an audience’s imagination.”
Science, and particularly physics, has inspired several recent theatre productions. Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children was set in the wake of a nuclear disaster and featured two physicists; her next play, Mosquitoes, which opens at the National Theatre in July, is also set against the backdrop of the LHC.
For Morton-Smith, science and theatre make a creatively fruitful collision. He points out that there is a poetry to the search for something such as the Higgs Boson particle, which goes to the very root of human existence. “When you’re talking about tiny particles and things in the quantum world that barely exist as we understand them, you have to talk in metaphors,” he says.
“But for me, they work so well together on stage because, generally, science is about trying to understand how the universe works – trying to figure out how people work and how you cope with the big questions of the world – and that’s all playwrights are ever trying to do.”