Katherine Moar’s debut play , Farm Hall, will have its world premiere at the Jermyn Street Theatre, from 9 March to 8 April 2023.
Directed by Stephen Unwin this World premiere dramatises the thrilling story of Operation Epsilon: one of the more fascinating and unexplored episodes of World War Two. It is Summer 1945: Hitler is dead, but war in the Pacific rages on. And so the British government has detained six of Germany’s most gifted nuclear scientists at a stately home in Cambridgeshire, named Farm Hall.
With only redacted newspapers, a broken piano and a copy of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit to amuse them, boredom seems like the biggest threat facing this extraordinary group. But then news arrives from the outside world that changes everything. Every reaction to the unfolding events is captured thanks to the British clandestine surveillance of their “guests”.
Your debut play, Farm Hall is at Jermyn Street Theatre, what can you tell us about the play?
Near the end of the Second World War, the Allies picked up a group of German scientists who had worked on the Nazi atomic bomb project and stowed them in a stately home in the Cambridgeshire countryside. The scientists were held there for six months – intensely bored – and it was there that they found out about the atomic bombing of Japan by the US which totally shattered them. The play takes place in one room, across those six months.
What inspired you to write it?
The play was directly inspired by the Farm Hall transcripts, the recordings of conversations of the German scientists held at Farm Hall between July 1945 and January 1946. The entire time they were there, the house was bugged by the British Secret Service which was hoping to find out how far the Germans had got with building an atomic bomb.
What did you find most challenging about writing a play based on true events?
Maintaining total historical accuracy whilst trying to create an effective piece of theatre was tricky. Ultimately this is a play, not a PhD thesis, so when it came down to it, what was dramatically coherent or exciting took precedence over what was historically true.
The most obvious example is that ten scientists were held at Farm Hall, but I’ve whittled it down to six. It’s really an ensemble play, and I thought ten characters were too many for an audience to get to know in one evening. I did feel that I had quite a lot of freedom, though, because only 5-10% of the original transcripts survive – so it was fun to speculate about what they talked about for the other 90-95%!
What’s it been like working with Stephen Unwin, who is directing?
It’s been brilliant. I first wrote the play in 2017-18 and it stayed in its first draft form for a very long time… The time I spent working on the play with Steve prior to rehearsals made it so much better in ways that I wouldn’t have been able to do without him – he’s got such a keen eye and a way of seeing right to the heart of things (what’s working in the play, what’s not working in the play). I’m very grateful.
And what’s impressed you most about the way the cast have brought your characters to life?
The thing that’s impressed me most is how much inner life and personality they’ve given to their characters. They’ve made them so much more than I could have imagined; they’re so much truer now, so much more emotionally real.
Working with them has also taught me so much about playwriting, about how an actor approaches a piece of a text. That question of ‘okay, but why?’. An actor is going to mine every word their character says and ask why. And that’s such a useful process because it really makes you look at your writing and think about why you’ve written what you’ve written.
What would you say to anyone thinking of booking to see Farm Hall?
I would say please do!
Farm Hall runs at Jermyn Street Theatre from March 9 to April 8. For more information visit http://www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk/