The Theatreguide.London Review
Lyttelton Theatre Summer 2003; Piccadilly Theatre Autumn 2003-Spring 2004
Tom Stoppard's 1972 play is given what is quite simply its best production ever in this National Theatre revival directed with wit, theatricality and heart by David Leveaux.
You will laugh, you will think, and - something that even the fabled original production failed at - you will care.
George, the token moral philosopher in a university whose faculty are chosen as much for their gymnastic abilities as their academic credentials, spends the play preparing a lecture that will use all the tools of logic to prove the existence of God.
Meanwhile his wife Dotty, a pop singer, has been so traumatised by news of a murder among astronauts that she can no longer sing June-moon songs.
She is under the care of a slimy colleague of her husband, who may be playing as fast and loose with her as he does with the implications of another murder within the faculty.
The original production was a tour-de-force for Michael Hordern as George, weaving his way lugubriously through Stoppard's hilarious puns, wordplay and deconstruction of logical jargon, while Diana Rigg hovered in the background, her somewhat pettier concerns providing an ironic contrast.
The problem was that you simply couldn't tell what Stoppard meant by this, if he meant anything at all - was George's valiant attempt to prove God's existence being celebrated or ridiculed, or was it just a handy vehicle for Stoppard's patented verbal razzle-dazzle?
The 1984 revival with Paul Eddington and Felicity Kendall was even emptier of meaning or emotional content, and literary and dramatic critics began to dismiss this play as one of Stoppard's empty displays of cleverness.
But David Leveaux and the cast of this revival have finally found the play Stoppard wrote, a serious and passionate (and no less funny for that) exploration of the hunger for faith, and an unambiguous celebration of the striving for it.
Physically straining his way through his lecture, Simon Russell Beale makes George's search for a way to prove God matter.
His intellectual somersaults may be as dazzling as the physical tumbling of the faculty gymnasts, but this George is wrestling with a desperately real problem.
He knows he believes, but he is enough of an intellectual to want to know why, and enough of a teacher to want to help others see why as well.
So, while we laugh at his wordplay and are stimulated by his evocations of philosophers from Zeno to Russell, we also - for the first time in my experience of the play - care.
And it is perhaps an even greater accomplishment that Essie Davis does the same thing with Dotty, succeeding where Rigg and Kendall failed, in making her crisis equally as moving as George's, without losing any of the fun.
In a scene which I know was in the other productions but never registered so powerfully, she makes it clear that it's not just the moon of sentimental songs that she has lost.
A murder up there shakes all confidence in morality down here, and her crisis is not an ironic counterpoint to George's, but a companion to it.
Moreover, both performers fill out their characters with enough emotional depth that, for the first time ever, I could believe in their marriage, and their real love for each other.
Jonathan Hyde is appropriately morally ambiguous as the colleague who leapfrogs over all inconvenient moral obstacles, and Nicholas Woodeson as an easily distracted policeman and Eliza Lumley as a silent but extraordinarily expressive secretary provide solid support.
One spends one's theatregoing life waiting for revivals like this, that redefine and rediscover a play in a way that makes it brand new.
It happens occasionally with Shakespeare and other classics, and it has happened now with this 30-year-old play, raising it to the very top rank of Stoppard's work.
And it's very, very funny.
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