Theatre review – The Real Thing

The Real Thing – review for Essential Surrey website.

A revival of Tom Stoppard’s painfully witty play about love and infidelity is being performed at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford until Saturday 11 November

Mr. Ingram was my English teacher in the mid-1970s. He instilled in me a love of English language and literature that has endured, and for which I am constantly grateful. He introduced me to Tom Stoppard for old-fashioned ‘O’ & ‘A’ Levels, and – from hazy, distant memory – we studied ‘Jumpers’ and ‘Travesties’, both terribly clever, wordy works from the wunderkind playwright who was just hitting his considerably long stride.

By the time Stoppard wrote ‘The Real Thing’ in 1982, I was distracted by Real Life so it was a joy to see this play for the first time this week, in a revival performance that remains faithful to its period of creation.

Max is brooding and drinking in his minimalist urban lounge, building a house of cards that collapses when his actor wife Charlotte returns from a trip ‘abroad.’ After some wickedly witty wordplay, Max tells Charlotte that he has found her passport in the bedroom. She refuses to respond to Max’s accusations of infidelity, and leaves him.

It is only in the second scene that we come to understand that the first was the performance of a play, written by Henry, a renowned playwright who is himself married to Charlotte. In this real world, where life and art are often hard to distinguish, Henry is in love with Annie – Max’s wife and another actor, but also a nascent political activist – and they’re having an affair.

Fast forward two years: Max discovered Annie’s infidelity, and she and Henry have been married for a while. But cracks are beginning to show….

There are multiple themes in this intellectually challenging play. One is words. Writers and words. In a parallel thread, Annie has asked for Henry’s opinion on a play written by Brodie, a former soldier who has been imprisoned for making a misguided political gesture, and whose cause Annie has taken up.

I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you might nudge the world a little or make a poem that children will speak for you when you are dead. Henry’s cricket bat analogy to compare his writing with Brodie’s is a huge hit, smashed over the literary boundary.

But the main theme of the play is love. Can The Real Thing survive betrayal and imbalance, infidelity and uncertainty?

‘I believe in mess, tears, pain, self-abasement, loss of self-respect, nakedness. Not caring doesn’t seem much different from not loving.’

Stoppard’s inspiration for The Real Thing came from being ‘intrigued by the playful thought of writing something in which the first scene turns out to have been written by a character in the second scene.’ Otherwise the play has less theatrical artifice than most of his others, and relies more on raw emotion oozing from the actors, as they bring the playwright’s dazzling wordplay to life.

Laurence Fox plays Henry in this emotionally charged revival, directed by Stephen Unwin. He acts with less outward exuberance than the rest of the excellent cast, but perhaps that is just his interpretation of a man constantly torn between his art, life and love.

Image courtesy of The Telegraph

And in the final twist of the play-within-a-play theme and life imitating art, it’s interesting to reflect that Stoppard had a long affair with Felicity Kendall, after she acted in the first performance of The Real Thing in 1982.

Image courtesy of The Telegraph

But it didn’t endure. Unlike my love of English. I wonder if Mr. Ingram is still alive….

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