A Fascinating Production About Hiroshima: The Mistake Review

image for the mistake at the arcola
Image credit: Arcola


The Mistake is a play about simultaneity. It’s morning, and Nomura Shigeko (Emiko Ishii) wills away her factory work, packing earplugs for Japanese soldiers—‘two for my fiancé, two for my brother’. She is oblivious. Overhead, General Paul Tibbets pilots the Enola Gay, a plane named after his mother, and readies himself to drop the world’s first atomic bomb.

From Keiji Nakazawa’s Hiroshima, to Masuji Ibuse’s Black Rain, writer Michael Mears draws from a range of first-hand accounts to construct Shigeko’s diary of August 1945. Hiroshima, she writes, must have been “spared” so far for its beauty; the place where the victorious Americans would build their villas.

Much like The Apology, the Arcola’s recent production on comfort women, the subject of The Mistake demands careful explanation, which can make for on-the-nose dialogue. The fourth wall is regularly broken, whilst codes and stereotypes help to simplify matters. (Physics here is denoted by e = mc2). Some moments are simply over-dramatised: “The experiment was (pause) a mistake!”.

Still, it paces well beyond the moments of 8:15am. Director Rosamunde Hutt guides Ishii into more subtle griefs. A silent scream at a pair of bodyless feet, melting into the floor—what she believes to be the remains of her mother—echoes loudly around the room.

But making this a two-hander between a young Japanese woman, and the various European and American men played by Michael Mears, is The Mistake’s triumph. These parallel narratives give each other context; showing how high politics and science, and lived experience are not mutually exclusive, but instead, parts of common histories.

Characters ask direct and complex questions of each other’s decisions. A vivid description of peeling skin precedes Tibbet’s burning questions on a talk show. “You don’t have to be clever, just one day earlier,” says the Hungarian physicist Leo Slizard remarks on arrival in America. Whilst facing existential threats themselves, how much did European migrants and refugees do to save the country and people they left behind? 

Beyond the generic Hungarian and German accents—Japanese, fortunately, is not attempted—The Mistake adds nuance to established history. Through Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi, and Albert Einstein, we see how European motives and fears about Nazi Germany’s nuclearisation were acted out in American labs, and how these motives would be weaponised by the US and Oppenheimer, in the Manhattan Project. 

Few are convinced by Tibbets’ claim that Japanese civilians had certainly been warned; here, it becomes a motif, which implies how he reassured himself in the years afterwards. Some treat him as a hero on return, but audience questions—another split narrative—highlight contemporary criticism of the war. In any case, he devolves responsibility to the plane for dropping the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Mears attempts to humanise his character. Even he is touched, and “tastes the bomb”, as the radiation hits his fillings; one of many unexpected consequences from this dark “experiment”.

Mark Friend’s staging recalls the play’s Edinburgh Fringe roots. A chalkboard glows with the harsh lines of the letter U for Uranium, haunts with the Gothic lettering of the word ‘ATOMIC BOMB’. It also serves as a plane, whilst paper bags and crumpled sheets become dead bodies, and tiny chairs transform into children, as voices from the London Japanese School linger in the background. A single, unnecessary, skull aside, further violence and exploitation is altogether avoided in the production.

The Mistake addresses the dangers that arise as humans dare to unlock the awesome power of nature. (One stereotype this reinforces is that all nuclear energy risks inevitable exploitation by humans). Whilst Blitz spirit abounds in the popular imagination, stories like The Mistake are scarcely staged. As such, it is a welcome production, which has catastrophic potential.

The Mistake ran at the Arcola Theatre until 4 February 2023.

Words by Jelena Sofronijevic

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