Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love opened at the Playhouse last night marking the first time the play has been staged in the city of its setting. It seems strange that it has taken so long for a performance to be mounted here, as Oxford is so central to its concerns. It is difficult to imagine it performed in any other city with quite the same pertinence. It recounts the Oxford undergraduate years of A.E Housman as he falls in love with one of his ‘comrades’ – a love which must remain unvoiced – in the context of the historically rich and textured backdrop of the ‘golden years’ of Oxford symbolised through such characters as Ruskin, Pater, and Wilde.

It has been described by some as Stoppard’s most difficult play and, indeed, an intimate knowledge of classical literature would have been helpful. Almost the entirety of the opening act was dedicated to the demonstration of cleverness; the underlying emotions were misplaced, if not quite lost, in long monologues where verbosity ruled. This was not the fault of the script but rather the of the actors, who appeared to become subsumed in the wordiness of their delivery. This was particularly noticeable in the second act when movement from poetry to naturalistic dialogue seemed somewhat strained.

While each actor playing one of the stereotypical Oxford professors was individually skilled, as a group they became generalised and one was indistinguishable from the other. The portrayal of Oscar Wilde left much to be desired: his witticisms became lost in a general caricature, but the difficulty of acting such a famous and admired figure is clear. Matthew Osman, however, played a quietly confident A. E. Housman with great skill and subtlety and, similarly, Joseph Robertson captured the youthful enthusiasm of his younger counterpart with sensitivity. So too was Philip Bartlett particularly noteworthy as the charismatic Pollard.

The set aims at a faux-Grecian mysticism; white drapes adorn carved pillars and flow from raised platforms. The need for ambiguity is logistically necessary, and the play moves from setting to setting with hardly a pause, but unfortunately this necessity has resulted in monotony. A more imaginative use of the same set would have relieved the tedium effectively. This is almost achieved in the second act with the appearance of many roses and French and British flags, though these appear to have more to do with the characterisation of Wilde than any other use. In contrast to this, the use of a boat on wheels was inspired and clearly represented the ‘golden years’ of the Oxford undergraduate as he floats down the Isis.

One hopes that these criticisms are due to first night hesitancy rather than any underlying flaws, although the complexity of the script and the ambition involved in realising it do seem to hinder the play. Yet it was very entertaining with stable acting throughout and some interesting directorial choices. There is a highly amusing sarcastic wit employed consistently and the overall production was interesting to watch. All in all, it is a play that is worth seeing for its ambitious scope, and, as Oxford students, seems particularly relevant in its depiction of the undergraduate years with all their many trials and concerns.

three stars

The Invention of Love is at the Oxford Playhouse until Saturday