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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Real Thing
Old Vic Theatre     Spring 2010

In the 1970s Tom Stoppard's critical reputation was, unjustly, that of a writer of incredible wit and verbal facility who had no real subject, nothing his plays were about except their own wit and inventiveness.

That was wrong, of course, but his 1982 play may have been partly inspired as a retort to the critics, since it openly uses its wit and eloquence in the service of deeply-held feelings.

Stoppard's play is about a playwright of incredible wit and verbal facility who feels things passionately although, ironically, he has trouble writing about the things he feels.

He is thrillingly in love with his second wife but can't write the play that would express that, though he can - and does - speak of his love in several eloquent and heartfelt near-arias.

He also discovers in the course of the story how very deep is his reverence for language and for the high standards of literature, and he gets to argue those feelings with equal fervour and brilliance.

The plot is generated by the unexpected clash of those two passions - for love and for literature - when the wife he adores takes up the cause of a prisoner who has tried to express his politics in a really bad play that she wants her husband to doctor and help get produced.

The real emotional dilemma this puts the protagonist in weakens the marriage just enough to let other cracks develop, creating situations that will test the depth and solidity of his love and of his ability to express it.

Actually, the prisoner himself turns out to be a bit of a red herring, quickly disposed of later in the play, as Stoppard's attention is focussed on the damage he has done by making the playwright character aware of the depth of his feelings and the conflicts between them.

And so The Real Thing offers all the clever jokes, aphorisms and verbal razzle-dazzle audiences and critics had come to expect from Stoppard, but this time with an unmistakable core of feeling and human experience (that of course had been there in the earlier plays, but missed by those who saw only the surface glibness).

It is easy to see why Toby Stephens was attracted to the role of the playwright in this revival. He has several scenes in which he gets to express his character's deeply held feelings in eloquent prose, along with moments in which the power of his emotion catches the character by surprise and briefly silences him.

Stephens holds the stage easily and never allows the character to become either too glib or too maudlin, so that we believe his emotional journey even as we are entertained by its expression.

As the object of his adoration, Hattie Morahan is sometimes unfairly used by Stoppard as a straight man and feed, setting up the conversations that will allow Stephens' character to shine, and she is most effective in early scenes that allow her to use her personality and body language to make clear that she matches his love without being quite so verbal about it.

Fenella Woolgar has strong moments as the first wife who has moved on to the position of wise and bemused observer, but the rest of the cast are generally there to be spoken at or to jog the plot along a bit.

Just as Stoppard was running the risk that the play could veer too far toward either wit or soppiness, so director Anna Mackmin had to keep the tone balanced on that tightrope, which she does with great skill and sensitivity.

Stoppard has since written many plays that put to rest the canard that his works have no heart beneath their wit. But if you've ever felt that suspicion, see this excellent revival of The Real Thing to discover the real writer about real feelings that he is.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Real Thing - Old Vic Theatre 2010

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