Sometimes, you walk away from a play with a slight spring in your step. You breathe in the cool spring air and dazedly glide over Radcliffe Square in that state of dreamy awe attended upon stoners and freshers. That’s what Will Yeldham’s production of Stoppard’s The Real Thing did for me. Indeed seeing the smiling faces and spontaneous giggles of the vacating audience, I think they too had a smashing time.
As fun as it was, this was not just a bit of summery feel good frivolity. This was a play as profound as it was uproarious. A play steeped in literary, philosophical and even musical allusion. It’s great achievement was how in addition to presenting intellectual insights, this was much more than a critic’s masturbatory aid. Unlike some Stoppard productions it did much more than celebrate its own cleverness. For at its core was the rather life affirming idea that underneath all the bullshit, even though there may not be a real thing, or any truth, we can still have a jolly good time. I’m tempted to paraphrase this as a sort of English Postmodernity.
Our story begins with another story, in fact one of the plays written by our main character Henry. The basic form of the story will be repeated throughout: a couple meets on the day when one of the couple learns the other has been cheating. This play within a play catches the countenance of them all; a fiction from which none of them can escape. In a fantastic directorial touch, this archetypal story is played out with no stylistic distinction from the rest of the story.
From there we chart the ups and downs of Henry, his wife Charlotte, Henry’s lover Annie, Annie’s husband Max and an obscure ‘political’ prisoner called Brodie. To reveal the subsequent story line would take up too much space that is better spent on the achievement of the cast and crew. But in brief, after the Max’s show, he and his wife host a drinks party at which Henry and his lover decide they better start getting serious about their affair. Soon they do just this, even though Henry and his wife continue to live together. Henry’s lover becomes implicated in the freeing of a ‘political’ prisoner, who was arrested for trying to burn down the cenotaph. In her noble bid to help his cause, she attempts to get Max to rewrite Brodie’s play in order to get him released. And then all manner of affairs begin.
Any summary won’t do justice the real driving force of the narrative: the wonderful characters. What unites them is there eminent self-awareness, at no point is any subtext allowed to linger. In the space of seconds any one of them can lay any other bare: and they know it. Even this isn’t subtextualised, Max at one points out that there is nothing underneath the various masks everybody puts on. Its like Oscar Wilde meets Derrida-ean deconstruction. Yet in spite of the nihilism, the play retains a warmth and an optimism.
Responsible for this achievement is the cast and the direction. You can just tell that they were really enjoying themselves throughout and yet not once did they loose control or professionalism. It’s a testament to Seamus Lavan’s characterization of Henry that you come out thinking he probably looks exactly like Henry would look like. What Lavan really manages is the inception like task of intelligently playing an intelligent character that is intelligently written. It is thanks to the ease and panache with which he pulls this task of, that part of the success of the play is derived. For play indeed comes together by unifying Stoppard’s many intertwined narrative layers, from the character of Stoppard’s style to the style of his characters’ characters.
Lavan is most certainly not alone is his excellence. His first counterpart is his wife Cara Pacitti, who assumes a wonderfully entertaining harshness towards him. Pacitti’s venomous but poised commentary to her husband’s life always made a refreshing counterpoint to the dialogue. Henry’s second counterpart is his lover in the form of Daisy Hayes. Hayes has a tough balancing act to play being at once an extremely sensitive and smart character but also clingy and naïve. Her skill in juggling these extremes goes a long way in carrying the momentum of the play in the middle section. Alongside these interchanging lovers we have the poor Max who is married to Hayes’s character. Played by John Dinneen, Max is that poor hapless character nobody takes seriously. As such he is probably one of the few un self consciously funny people in the play. Dinneen really showed of his versatility when, playing one of Henry’s characters and then switching into a completely different personage as Max.
All of this leaves the largely absent and yet hugely central Brodie played by Daniel De Lisle. De Lisle really resembled Begbie from Trainspotting. Like Begbie, you weren’t too sure how much to laugh and how much to be scared of him. Put him in an Oscar Wilde(esque) play and throw a box of hummus in his face and the results speak for themselves. Accompanying these wonderful performances were two cameo appearances from Maddy Walker as Henry’s daughter and Freddie Waxman as a rival playwright. Walker’s discussion with Lavan about the merits of boiler room virginity and Latin classes has to be one of the highlights of the production. Equally, Waxman’s train carriage seductions really take the idea of theatrical pretension to untold heights (trust me as a critic I know).
All in all, one of the few productions that lives up to the greatness of the text. The result is a warm hearted and uproarious take on the nihilism that results from an age of endless ironic self-reference and relativized discourse. Yet in spite of identifying the emptiness at the end of this deconstruction of the self, the other and the act of love itself; the play makes you glad to be alive. Great stuff.