Wednesday I caught The Old Vic production of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, as I mentioned in a recent post. Most of you know how I am enamoured of Stoppard’s work and I had heard good things about this production. The bar was set high by the most recent production of his Arcadia, which was one of the most compelling productions I have seen despite an unbelievably hot theatre.
The cast included the wonderful Toby Stephens, Hattie Morahan, Fenella Woolgar and Barnaby Kay. It’s a surprisingly affectionate look at love, something I suppose most people don’t associate with Stoppard. It does begin with a little bit of a trick that you do associate with him: the opening scene — you begin to realise during the one that follows it — is part of a play within a play, written by Henry (Stephens) and acted by his wife (Woolgar) and friend (Kay), whose girlfriend, we come to find, has begun falling for Henry.
Much of the play circles around Henry and Annie as they deal with happiness and their own insecurities. Henry wants to write a play for Annie, but finds that happiness is not very inspiring for good writing, that love and lust lead only to banalities and clichés. Annie gets upset because Henry fails to be jealous of a love scene she has with an attractive co-star. Like all couples, they had divergent tastes that can’t necessarily be reconciled. Annie tries to get Henry to appreciate classical music, but he’s stuck on vintage pop songs (which punctuate many of the scene changes) which he finds the best way to express those ‘banal’ feelings of love.
The excellent cast inhabit their roles with real verve. Stephens manages to give Henry a down-to-earth friendliness that balances the sometimes knowing speeches about writing and the power of words that often infuriate Annie when she’s trying to convince him of the importance of her cause celébre ‘political prisoner’s’ play. The famous ‘cricket bat’ speech — where Henry compares good writing to the crafting of a bat in contrast to a similarly shaped bit of wood — can easily sound pedantic, but Stephens gives it a kind of eager enthusiasm that makes it seem entirely inspired by a spur of the moment thought.
Morahan’s Annie has a harder job because she has to be a bit histrionic at times, very much an actor, and occasionally her gestures seemed a bit too controlled for effect, but then again, it fits the role. With the slight hoarseness in her voice and some of the mannerism, I couldn’t help seeing her as Felicity Kendal which was likely just my knowing the history of the playwright. The wonderful Woolgar did so much with the largely thankless task of the discarded spouse, infusing with such wit and intelligence that you couldn’t help but wonder why Henry would have left her for the more emotional Annie, but the heart is an unpredictable little muscle.
Stoppard seems almost apologetic dealing with ‘the real thing’ here; it gives Henry and the play a kind of charming awkwardness, but it also offers a compelling meditation on the ways we learn to deal with the ebb and flow of love and the hunger to find it that makes us step out into the darkness time and again with a leap of faith — and the hope that the next time it will be real. As the strains of “Daydream Believer” ring out, you can’t help but smile and wish the best for Henry and Annie.
Some wandering today along the Thames and back to the Tate Modern: on Waterloo Bridge I happened to run into Nigel Planer, who looked very good. I had just missed my bus and it began to rain. A cooler day than the last couple — hurrah!