The Story Behind The Mistake
Michael Mears as Leo Szilard. Photo © Simon Richardson.
Michael Mears is described as a fine writer and a formidable actor and his latest play, The Mistake which is about to embark on a nationwide tour of 28 venues around the UK, has already enjoyed a successful three weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe last year and this year had a sell-out run at London’s Arcola Theatre picking up rave reviews and awards along the way. Awards such as The Mervyn Stutter Spirit of the Fringe Award, Edinburgh 2022; Sit Up Awards Edfringe 2022; Longlisted for the BBC Writers’ Room Popcorn Award 2022 and winner of a Carol Tambor Incentive Award Edinburgh 2022.
The Mistake is London-born Michael’s first play for two actors. Prior to this he has written three solo plays for the stage and seven solo plays for BBC Radio 4, all of which were performed by himself. His 1990’s play about homelessness, Soup, won a Scotsman Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Festival. His recent acclaimed solo play This Evil Thing, depicting the struggle of Britain’s WW1 conscientious objectors, was performed by him over 100 times between 2016-2019 in many parts of the UK.
Michael Mears as US Pilot General Tibbet.Photo © Simon Richardson.
The Mistake marks the 78th anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and explores the events surrounding the catastrophic ‘mistake’ that launched our nuclear age. Two actors, one British, one Japanese, enact the compelling stories of the brilliant Hungarian-Jewish scientist, Leo Szilard who conceived the nuclear chain reaction that resulted in the atom bomb being made. Michael Mears also plays the daring American pilot, Colonel Paul Tibbets Jnr who flew the B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima.
Co-starring with Michael in The Mistake is Japanese actor Riko Nakazono who plays Nomura Shigeko, a young Japanese woman living in Hiroshima, who tells of her terrifying experiences on that fateful day – 6th August 1945 when 80,000 people died instantly when the bomb dropped – a number which rose to more than 220,000 in the aftermath of the explosion.
Riko Nakazono who plays Nomura Shigeko, survivor of the bomb. Photo © Simon Richardson.
Without a doubt this is an incredibly powerful topic for a play, and I asked Michael Mears if it was a subject he had long wanted to write about – and just how difficult it was – emotionally and practically, to write this play.
“There has been quite a long gestation period,” said Michael. “I have always been passionately against nuclear weapons. As a young man I joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. You might remember the Protect and Survive campaign put out by the Government between 1974 and 1980, showing how to protect yourself during a nuclear attack. But then the conflict and threats between east and west seemed to ease, the Berlin Wall came down and it seemed to me that nuclear weapons weren’t as threatening as they once were. However, the Edinburgh Fringe festival last year coincided with Putin’s threat and invasion of the Ukraine, making me realise just how appropriate the play is these days.
Going back to the inspiration behind the play, Michael continued, “I remember many years ago seeing a spread in the newspaper where they interviewed the pilot of the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It was a fascinating article about a man who showed absolutely no remorse and no regrets for what he’d done. He was a military man through and through and he was just carrying out his duties. He wasn’t going to change his attitude and he never would. Rather, he spoke about how much skill was required to do what he did. But on the opposite page there was an interview with a survivor of the bombing – two separate interviews.
Leo Szilard, The Mistake by Michael Mears. Photo © Simon Richardson.
“I started thinking, wouldn’t it be fascinating if the pilot of the plane was to meet up with the Japanese survivor. I am predominately an actor so in between acting jobs I started work on this play – writing a bit then putting it aside for a while, getting it out again. So, it was an 18-year gestation.
“I started looking at other characters, and the most famous person is Oppenheimer who didn’t suffer a great deal of guilt – then I came across a Hungarian-Jewish physicist named Leo Szilard who was passionate about building the bomb before Nazi Germany did. He conceived the chain reaction in nuclear physics but after Germany was defeated in 1945 he then tried to stop the bomb being used against Japan, getting up a petition – the famous Szilard Petition, signed by over 150 scientists to stop the bomb being dropped. However, President Harry S. Truman never got to see the petition and the bomb was used on Hiroshima. Leo Szilard felt great guilt after it was dropped with such devastating results. He spent the rest of his life working for peace and for international arms control agreements between the US and the Soviet Union.
Michael Mears takes the roles of both characters in The Mistake and also plays Einstein who is also important to the plot. He explained that in order to modulate the tone and mood of the play, scenes move forward and back in time and to different settings. “It’s all about drip feeding the story, switching viewpoints to different times and scenes – merging three stories into one,” he said.
In writing the play Michael recalled that some years previously he learnt that the pilot who dropped the bomb was on a book signing tour – and he was interested in meeting him and hopefully asking him some questions as to why he didn’t feel any remorse for what he’d done. However, the book tour was cancelled due to Tibbet’s ill health and so Michael never got the chance to speak to him.
He made use of this incident in the play, however. He continued: “In The Mistake, we have the modern Japanese woman going along to the pilot’s book tour, meeting him and asking him all the questions that people – I imagine, would like to know. So, writing this scene where she takes on this elderly pilot and asks him some hard questions is quite exciting.”
Researching for the play was major and Michael discovered there wasn’t very much information on Leo Szilard. But he did discover some books on him, one being Genius in the Shadows: A biography of Leo Szilard: the Man Behind the Bomb, by William Lanouette. “Other research came from books such as Black Rain a beautifully written novel by Japanese author Masuji Ibuse but which has some extremely distressing scenes which are shocking to read; and Hiroshima by John Hersey – he interviewed survivors of the bomb – he just lets them tell their stories, he doesn’t make any judgement. It’s a brilliant account and a book I suggest everyone should read if they get the chance.”
Another problem Michael came up against was finding an English-speaking Japanese actor who could take the role of Nomura Shigeko. He explained, “The RSC was ‘mopping up’ many Japanese actors for its production of My Neighbour Totoro but then Michael heard of the ‘Japanese Performers’ Message Board’ where he was able to contact English speaking Japanese actors.
“A couple of the actors turned down the chance to be in the play purely because of the traumatic storyline, they didn’t think they would be able to handle it emotionally. And that is an important point – you have to take care of yourself. You have to consider your mental health, absorbing all this information and traumatising stories. I am very grateful to the Japanese performers who have been – and are, a part of this. It is very brave of them to go in front of the audience and go on this emotional journey.
L-R: You-Ri Yamanaka, Emiko Ishii and Riko Nakazono. Photo © Simon Richardson.
Three excellent Japanese performers have worked on The Mistake with Michael to date. You-Ri Yamanaka who was part of early workshopping of the play, took part in the film collage they made from the play in 2020, then went to Edinburgh with him in November 2021 to give a first public reading of the play. Emiko Ishii performed in the first full production of the play last year at the Edinburgh Fringe and this year at the Arcola. And Riko Nakazono, who, will be performing in the play on its 2023 autumn tour.
The Mistake is at The Bear Pit, Stratford Upon Avon on 20 September 2023, as part of its 28 venues-tour all around the UK which includes around half a dozen schools. Michael’s intention is for young people to be aware of these events that changed our world. The tour will stretch from Aberystwyth in West Wales to Aldeburgh on the east coast, from Brighton in the south to Lancaster in the north.
“The play naturally appeals to the older demographics,” said Michael. “My challenge is to get younger people interested and asking questions. Although schools have been studying the war and Hiroshima, seeing a young Japanese performer will really bring it home to them and make it all that much more interesting. Additionally, we have information packs that we can give out to schools, and we will be running Q & A sessions after some performances, so giving audiences the opportunity to discuss the topic.”
The full list of venues and tour dates is on Michael Mears website: https://michaelmears.org/tour-dates-for-the-mistake/
Text © Ann Evans.
Michael Mears the actor
As a professional actor, Michael’s career has spanned four decades, in theatre, film and television. He has worked for all the major theatre companies, including the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Peter Hall Company, and performed in London’s West End on numerous occasions, most notably for nine months in the long-running hit The Woman In Black. TV work includes Sharpes Rifles (three series), The Lenny Henry Show (two series), Parade’s End, Sanditon and The Crown. Film work includes Four Weddings and a Funeral, Little Dorrit, The Good Soldier Schwejk and Last Night In Soho.
Crowdfunding for The Mistake
In organising this tour and listening to what friends and supporters have urged, Michael decided to do a little crowdfunding for The Mistake. He said, “I have worked long and hard to persuade 28 venues, including theatres, small arts centres, churches, Quaker Meeting Houses and schools to have a performance of the play this September and October.
“But it’s catch-22 without a tour pretty much in place, the Arts Council won’t look favourably on a grant application – ‘Where’s the evidence of demand?’ they will ask. But if you do get a strong and varied tour set-up, which of course involves contracts and commitments, and then you are refused funding, as I was recently, what do you do? Cancel everything? An option, of course – but a costly and unpleasant one.
“No, this tour goes ahead, he said. And if you can help in any way, with however small a contribution, he would be so grateful. His crowdfunding ends 2 September 2023.
For more details, please visit: https://michaelmears.org