Writer: Tom Stoppard
Director: Stephen Unwin
Reviewer: Gareth Davies
In 1982, when Tom Stoppard’s play was first staged, Ronald Reagan had made the perhaps unlikely journey from film star to commander in chief, transitioning from an acting career to become President of the United States. Thirty years later, in the era of ‘fake news’, the question of truth, authenticity and reality has never been more important.
Stoppard questions the ‘real things’ of both a personal and a political life in typically tricksy fashion. Life imitates art, imitating life, as playwright Henry (Laurence Fox) draws on his own experiences of cheating on his wife Charlotte (Rebecca Johnson), by creating a play in which she plays the cheating spouse of Max (Adam Jackson-Smith), whose wife Annie (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) is, in the real world, the woman with whom Henry is cheating.
As Henry struggles to reconcile his conflicting passions, Annie becomes fixated with a young Scotsman (Santino Smith) whose public act of political rebellion seems the natural stuff of drama – if only he wasn’t such a terrible writer, and with such terrible personal politics…
If all that seems hard to grasp, Stoppard offers few opportunities to get to grips with the layers of his vision, in a richly textured but uneven play which is bursting with his trademark quick-fire wit; the speed of delivery in Stephen Unwin’s production often obscures its humour, passing through the audience’s ears too quickly for them to decipher either its comedy or its meaning. Pace is badly handled too, with long set changes for short scenes, and structural inconsistency: the intellectual meat of the play comes in a second half filled with strange periods of dramatic stagnation, after a first half, establishing the complex scenario and personae, which feels uncomfortably rushed.
The cast as a whole seem too young for their characters – the presence of an almost 17-year-old daughter feels ill-fitted to parents played by not-yet-forty actors. And despite the characters all daring to be deeply unlikeable, Fox in particular renders his adulterer with a lugubrious charm and creative cynicism that saves the role from being a waspish, pedantic bore. Relishing the writerly turns of phrase he is given – ‘virgo syntacta’ being a particular delight – Fox wrings meaning from Stoppard’s verbosity, and captures the smug, self-satisfied air of a man who understands the world well enough to reduce it to dramatic dialogue, without making him a man you’d cross the street to avoid.
The play’s weakness is its absence of authentic emotion – the one ‘real thing’ missing from all the characters’ lives, as we see them. If Fox struggles to convey Henry’s heartache in the play’s second half, it may only be because the play’s rigid intellectualism leaves little room for feeling in between the badinage and debate.
Runs until 28 October 2017 | Image: Edmond Terakopian