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The Theatreguide.London Review

Hapgood
Hampstead Theatre  Winter 2015-2016

Tom Stoppard's 1988 play is a Russian-doll series of mysteries within puzzles within enigmas, and your enjoyment of this revival will depend entirely on your taste for mysteries, puzzles and enigmas, because almost entirely absent is any human element or any reason to become emotionally involved with the plot or characters. 

Stoppard's genius has always resided in his ability to yoke seemingly unrelated subjects together so they become intriguing and illuminating metaphors for each other – philosophy and acrobatics, Shakespeare and Beckett, landscape gardening and higher mathematics. 

Here he equates quantum mechanics with espionage, the common theme being uncertainty. 

In the sub-atomic world of quarks, photons and Higgs bosons the laws of physics seem suspended. A particle can be in two places at once or travel from A to C without passing through B, and the act of looking at something changes its behaviour. 

In the spying world a double agent must give each of his masters enough of the other's secrets to keep them both happy, so that it is ultimately impossible to tell where his real loyalties lie. 

The plot of Hapgood is generated by a bit of spying. A double agent passes a briefcase of British secrets to the Russians. But the Brits actually want the Russians to get the secrets so they can then catch them with the secrets and blackmail them into secretly working for the Brits. 

But the Russians don't get the secrets because another British agent interferes with the handover, which means that this British agent didn't want the Russians to get the secrets, which means that this British agent didn't want them to be caught with the secrets, which means that this Brit is actually working for the Russians. 

That new double agent, who is not the double agent who started the process (who everyone knows is a double agent), can only be one of two people, one of them Mrs. Hapgood, the head of this department of double agents. Which means that as she leads the investigation to catch the new double agent she may in fact be deflecting suspicion away from herself. 

All we know for sure is that there are twins involved in there somewhere. 

Through the bulk of the play very little is as simple as it seems, encounters in which A appears to be directing or interrogating B turn out to be B manipulating A and much of what A says to B or B to A (or to C or D) turns out to be a lie, or at least a misdirection. 

What we look for determines what we see. 

If you love Agatha Christie-type mysteries or logic puzzles or chess, you'll enjoy Hapgood enormously, as you try desperately to keep up with Stoppard's inventiveness. If you don't, you won't, because there is nothing there except the puzzles and mysteries. 

Few of the characters give any indication of any life outside their spying, and those that do – Hapgood has a son and an ex-lover – seem disconnected from them (Hapgood has to have her secretary put her son's rugby game in her diary). 

And in spite of the involvement of the boy and someone's sister, there is nothing to get emotionally involved with and no one to care about. 

Director Howard Davies might have encouraged his cast to grasp at the few hints of personalities the text offers them, but has clearly pushed them in the opposite direction. 

As Hapgood, Lisa Dillon does not displace memories of Felicity Kendal from nearly thirty years ago, in part because she lacks the pleasure in her own cleverness Kendal found in the character. 

Tim McMullan is droll as a lugubrious colleague who is smarter than he pretends to be, and Alec Newman and Gerald Kyd essentially faceless as a pair of essentially faceless agents. 

Ashley Martin-Davis's set, dominated by a back wall of TV screens, is appropriately sterile, though lighting designer James Farncombe might have lit a couple of key scenes just a bit more so we had at least the illusion that we were seeing what was happening.

Gerald Berkowitz


Review - Hapgood - Hampstead Theatre 2015  
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