Wednesday, May 23, 1990

The Real Thing: Curtain Up Review

Editor's Note: This was Lizzie's personal favourite of last season, when it played at the Donmar Warehouse. Since it transferred with its fine cast intact to the Albery, we asked Lizzie to give us her thoughts on the play with the addition of current production notes. ES

This play from Tom Stoppard, the deserved darling of the 1999 script writing Oscars was first performed in 1982. His wit zaps us with laughter like a sub machine gun delivering one liners. In fact the lines are so fast and so erudite that you may want to buy the play to re-read and chuckle over at your leisure.

The theme of this brilliantly funny play is infidelity and a personal journey of the intellectual Henry to a destination involving emotion and pain. We follow playwright, Henry (Stephen Dillane) through two marriages, both to actresses. The first wife is Charlotte (Sarah Woodward), a sardonic and slightly sour character. The second is Annie (Jennifer Ehle), an altogether sweeter prospect played by this most attractive actor with a delicacy of touch. The first scene is a trompe d'oeil which I will not spoil for you. At the start of the play, Annie is married to Max (Nigel Lindsay) who takes his wife's adultery with Henry, very, very badly indeed. As in Othello, the hankerchief is a crucial piece of evidence. Max swings from anger to despair to pleading, in contrast with the phlegmatic Henry, who seems to take all of life's shattering events in his detached stride. This is very much an eighties play about a middle class that displays no physical violence yet relationships among these "civilised" folks founder nevertheless.

The minimalist set from Vicki Mortimer is perfect as a backdrop, designer linen and muslin are sported and Mark Henderson's lighting forms grids in shade and light to complete this superficially ideal world. David Leveaux directs expertly and naturally.

It is the second half of the play which delves deeply into the relationship quagmire, where infidelity, lies and suspicion take hold. Annie gets involved with a political campaign to free a soldier, Brodie (Joshua Henderson), imprisoned for setting fire to a wreath at London's Cenotaph War Memorial. Ehle is perfect as the nicely brought up girl getting a sexual frisson from associating with the kind of man she has not come across before, with prison and injustice to add to the fascinating mix. The point is underlined when Sarah and Henry's daughter Debbie (Caroline Hayes) takes off with a fairground worker. The Real Thing is not only about love and sex but about writing with Stoppard drawing on his experience of both. Talking about the art of the writer, Henry says, "Words when you look after them can build bridges across incomprehension and class." He makes us ask whether the real thing is the experience of life in the raw or the skilled communication in writing but about other people's experiences. The pivot for this debate is Brodie's own autobiographical but badly written play. Similar questions are raised about love. Is it real or illusory? Which is the real thing? Lust or tolerance.

It is all very clever and funny, making you laugh again and again. Stoppard is never predictable. Some scenes end in a clever twist and others seem to follow an anarchic trail; for example, Annie, whilst trying to raise Henry's musical appreciation from hits of the Sixties to something more esoteric, sets him an opera quiz, asking him what she is playing:
Henry - Strauss?
Annie - No, it can't be Strauss. It's in Italian
Henry - Ah, then -- Verdi
Annie - Which one?
Henry - Giuseppe (he says looking really pleased with himself)

Henry explains his philosophy of sex and love as knowledge, a private knowledge of each other as lovers, which is separated from our public lives. At the beginning of the play, Henry is almost untouched by emotion. Although he is a romantic, he doesn't suffer as his experience is to skate over the surface of his feelings. By the end of the play he has changed and pain is the result.

Dillane and Ehle act each other off the stage -- Dillane with his wonderful timing and expression, Ehle with her sincerity and sex appeal. Everyone should see this play, except perhaps those in the midst of a secret affair, who should not go with their wronged spouse lest the comedy takes on an altogether blacker aspect. It is the kind of play which is so stimulating that you immediately want to read it or see it again. In theatrical terms this is THE REAL THING.

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