December 07, 2007

Heart of Glass


The Real Thing
By Tom Stoppard

State Theatre Company
Of South Australia
Dunstan Playhouse
November 20, 2007. Until December 8.

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

There is no doubting Tom Stoppard’s brilliance and he has written a number of modern classics – Travesties and Jumpers in the early Seventies, more recently the marvelous Arcadia, as well as (a neat program match for this year’s Hamlet perhaps ?) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The Real Thing, however, is not in the same league and time has not improved it. Written in 1982, it was previously staged by State Theatre in the late Eighties with John Gaden in the lead role of Henry – and not even his conspicuous charms could give the play conviction or appeal.

Opening in an English drawing room with Max playing with a deck of cards and his wife Charlotte back late from a trip to Europe, the play swiftly shifts from brittle romance to brittle pique as it becomes evident that, without her passport, Charlotte has traveled less distance and gone quite a lot further away. This glimpse of infidelity, we then discover, is not the real thing but a scene from a play, The House of Cards, written by the playwright Henry who, in no time at all and unbeknownst to his real wife Charlotte, is enacting these very events with the actor Max’s real wife Annie. This, then, is the Stoppard theatrical switcheroo, plays within plays, followed by copious questions about love and art, and what is real and what is passing fancy.

Director Michael Hill has a daunting task with a text that is all intricacy, self-conscious wit and – for all its talk of love – bereft of real heart. Stoppard has his hands on all the levers, like Prospero, but without a plan. He has privileged Henry by either giving him the last word or letting him construct the argument to his advantage. He fulminates against everything from relationships to political theatre but nobody really gets a word in edgeways. He is like a butcher weighing chops with his elbow on the scales. There are smart lines, including the speech comparing the playwright’s task to perfectly poised stroke play in cricket. There are quips, comic rants and sub-Wildean epigrams, but the play has a dyspeptic tone and an off-putting smugness – whether about pop music or the death of marriage.

As Henry, Marco Chiappi does well persuading us that this man can feel anything except his own cleverness, but it is a stretch to make us believe he is distraught. Excellent as Annie, Ksenja Logos astutely swoops, in Act Two, on the opportunity for spirited emotional rebellion – which Stoppard grudgingly (or perhaps unconsciously) allows.

Ulli Birve and Rob MacPherson, playing Max and Charlotte, are staunch but have less to work with – like the discarded partners in Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Jamie Harding is self-possessed as Brodie, the Glaswegian activist playwright whom Stoppard lines up, not so much in the cross-hairs, as within sawn-off shotgun range. And, while capable, Jude Henshall’s job as daughter Debbie is mostly to be lectured to by father Tom.

Dean Hills’s stylish décor is Eighties without the padded shoulders and the set changes are managed by elvish punks to the tunes of the Clash, Blondie and Chrissie Hynde. But despite Hill and company’s diligent attention, The Real Thing is a disappointing simulacrum. Neither end-of-season romp nor dazzling conundrum, it is just too clever for its own boots.

“Heart of Glass” The Adelaide Review, No. 331, December 7, 2007, p.27.

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