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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Old Vic Theatre


  Toby Stephens and Hattie Morahan/ Ph: Johan Persson

How do you know whether what you feel is love? How do you define it, what can it withstand? Is a symphony worth more than a catchy three-minute pop song? And what really makes great writing – passion or craftsmanship? Tom Stoppard’s 1982 play performs an intricate dissection of the human heart – but it does so, with dazzling theatricality, via a multi-faceted consideration of the fundamental nature of authenticity.
The playwright dedicated this work to Miriam Stoppard, his first wife. Its premiere production starred Felicity Kendal, for whom he was to leave her. So The Real Thing mirrors its creator’s own reality with painful accuracy, which means emotional blood and guts are encased within its carefully constructed exoskeleton of artifice and intellect. And in this new revival directed by Anna Mackmin, every drop of sweat and briny tear is made to matter at least as much as each witty observation or coruscating idea. 
The play opens with an audacious meta-theatrical joke. Charlotte comes home from a business trip to Geneva. Her husband, Max, accuses her of having been on a jaunt with her lover. There’s brittle wordplay around the Swiss franc and the name Frank. There’s hurt and anger. The next scene finds Charlotte, in a dressing gown, ensconced in a book-lined flat with another man, Henry. Were Max’s suspicions right? Well, yes and no, because it turns out that Henry is a playwright,; Max and Charlotte – actually Henry’s wife – are actors, and the first scene was an excerpt from Henry’s new play. Henry is, however, having an affair with Max’s real wife, Annie – also an actor.
In writing Max’s role, Henry has created for himself an onstage alter ego with all the best lines. Charlotte’s part is underwritten, so she has to be content with effectively being controlled by Henry, speaking the words he has given her to say and inhabiting a character she cannot believe in. Small wonder Henry’s play is called "House of Cards." And small wonder, given how closely it relates to his offstage domestic situation, that his marriage to Charlotte is close to collapse. 
Once Annie and Henry’s involvement is out in the open and they’ve split from their respective spouses, the long-term business of love turns out to be no less complicated. Henry discovers that, though he feels the bliss and, later, the agony of their connection, he struggles to put it into words in the play he’s promised to write for Annie. And she has passions outside their relationship. She’s an activist for Brodie, a Scottish soldier imprisoned for a politically motivated act of vandalism, who himself has written a play full of conviction of bad writing. And Annie’s young co-star in a production of "‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore" presents temptation.
Henry is a shameless snob whose boundaries of aesthetic taste are conveniently elastic; he loves cheesy pop music but disapproves of political posturing and can’t forgive bad writing. But can he forgive sexual infidelity in the woman who has become utterly essential to him?
Mackmin’s production is played on a gliding white set by Lez Brotherston that is, aptly, part elegant emotional operating theatre, part pale and fragile house of cards. And her cast fills it with bliss, raw pain, resignation and compromise as the characters grope their way towards elusive happiness. Toby Stephens is captivating as Henry: arrogant, arch, at first rather arid, yet softening and growing as suffering teaches him to feel and to know himself. Hattie Morahan’s Annie has warmth and a loose-limbed sensuality. There’s excellent support, too, from Fenella Woolgar as Charlotte – weary and sniping in a marriage gone too cold and stale to nourish either spouse – and from Barnaby Kay as Max, whose devastation at Annie’s desertion of him is heartrendingly anguished. This is art that hurts, but in a very, very good way.

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