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  • Henry Longstaff

The Mistake - Arcola Theatre

Humanity versus warcraft

Nancy Farino and Leon Finnan stand face to face, staring at each other
Michael Mears and Emiko Ishii. Photography: Simon Richardson


On the morning of August 6th 1945, the “Little Boy” nuclear bomb was released above the city of Hiroshima, the first atomic weapon used in warfare. In a moment lives were destroyed, a city obliterated with civilians left dead, burnt and irradiated. Safe in America, physicist Leo Szilard, the man who conceived the nuclear chain reaction used in nuclear energy and weapons, fears for the future and petitions for nuclear disarmament. Michael Mears’s latest play dissects the documented history and more importantly the contentious ethical ambiguity surrounding this turning point, but this production woefully misses its target.

There is no doubt that The Mistake is a labour of love for Mears, a rich historical delve into one of the most, if not the most significant moment of the 20th century, but sadly that passion does not translate into a quality piece of theatre. The tone of this production is wildly confused, switching between intense historical plot, jarring fourth wall breaks and borderline insensitivity, all of this built on an unsteady and muddled script. With the play approaching the epicentre of the event from multiple angles, the physicist, the pilot, the survivor and more sharing their perspectives, it cries out for a careful, delicate approach but instead, we are gifted the throw it all at the wall and see what sticks method.

Throughout the play, the plot continuously circles back to Leo Szilard and his experiments that birthed the concept of the atomic bomb, his fear and regret evident to see in Michael Mears’s (both writer and actor) performance. It is in these scenes that the production finds some semblance of steady ground. Glimmers of lesser-told history are fed to the audience, excavating both the fact but also the entangled battle, pitting war against humanity.

At its lowest, despite best intentions, this piece feels problematic. The ungainly plot of a survivor and her diary, searching for her parents in the wreckage of Hiroshima is uncomfortable and heavy-handed. Alongside excruciating Christmas Carol-esc sequences where Szilard dreams of the future he has created, Emiko Ishii is left attempting to dramatise the aftermath of the bomb beleaguered by patronisingly thin dialogue and a sorry lack of emotion. By the time her deceased mother’s skull is instructing her to forgive the enemy, it is frankly farcical and painfully churlish.

Despite the untidy output, Mears’s message is able to escape. A plea for peace, disarmament and dialogue - particularly poignant in today’s world. Even with a foundation grounded in topics of such importance, I can only critique the work placed in front of me and in this case, it falls far short of the mark. Much work and refocusing needs to be done to ensure this piece elevates the dark history of Hiroshima to effectively expose the lessons we desperately need to remember. But for now, this production is troubled and messy, long outstaying its welcome.

Running till 4 February - Tickets

Photography - Simon Richardson

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