June 01, 1986

Potent cheap music

The Real Thing, by Tom Stoppard; co-directed John Gaden and Gale Edwards; designer Roger Kirk; at Adelaide Festival Centre Playhouse until June 28.

Cast: Lynette Curran. John Gaden, Deborah Kennedy, Anna Lee, Andrew Tighe, Paul Williams, Ross Williams.

In dealing with the veerings, predations and yearnings of the human heart, Tom Stoppard’s play, The Real Thing; is indisputably about real things but his penchant for Chinese boxes has turned the play into a set of dodgy refractions which make complexity into obfuscation and argument into sophistry.

In this play, there are many echoes of Noel Coward’s Private Lives – not least Elyot Chase’s – “Strange how potent cheap music is.” The· play concerns Henry, an established playwright with what seems an unlikely passion for pop singles. For him the world is crystallised in “Da Doo Ron Ron”. Henry has written a play called ·The House Of Cards and as the set revolves in front of us, we are left deliberately confused as to when we are in Henry’s play and when we are in Stoppard’s.

It is a nice idea to have a play-within-a-play but with Henry cast as a toe-tapping Prospero, engineering events and serving as a mouthpiece for Stoppard, the effect is to throw the play seriously out of kilter:

Increasingly the play is on Henry’s terms. He is a playwright surrounded by actors – his first wife Charlotte, his lover Annie and her husband, Max, all . on one stage or another performing fictions which subsequently become fact. Situations are contrived to reveal that love and relationships are arbitrary and the best things are done for the worst reasons.

Fair enough – and if Stoppard had kept to Coward’s brave account of private lives he would have written a similarly vehement comedy of married manners. Instead, he overlays the play with a quilt of connubial romance which denies its own insights. Stoppard not only collapses his house of cards but he deals with a tampered deck.

He also adds a meretricious subplot concerning Brodie, a young soldier imprisoned for setting fire to a cenotaph in an anti-militarist protest. He is befriended by Annie who also appears in a play he has written about his experiences.

Stoppard continues to over-manipulate the material by giving Brodie short and very reactionary shrift, dispatching Max conveniently to a second marriage and glibly reuniting Annie with the now wise and constant Henry. No wonder Henry, adored by every woman in the play, is complacently smiling to the tune of I’m A Believer. Certainly, as far as its sexual politics are concerned, the whole thing has gone back to the monkeys.

As Henry, John Gaden is splendid but when he lends his genial good humour to the part, he partially obscures the reactionary nastiness endemic in the play. That may be desirable but it only emphasises real problems with Stoppard’s writings.

The cast generally is strong – Lynette Curran gives a vivid and intelligent performance as Annie and Ross Williams and Deborah Kennedy are strongly etched as the displaced spouses. Andrew Tighe and Paul Williams as Brodie and Billy similarly give understated performances. Tighe again shows his versatility and range. To his credit, when he gets a pie in the face at the end of the play we get a strong sense that it is Stoppard’s problem not Brodie’s.

Roger Kirk’s deliciously detailed revolving set gives lavish affirmation of the discreet charms of being middle class. While every credit goes to Gaden and the State Theatre Company for an excellent and amusing production the fact is that The Real Thing is a swindle and it would be better if its potent cheap music crept by us altogether.

Murray Bramwell

The National Times, June, 1986.

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