November 22, 2007

Brittle narcissism delivers little

2007 The Australian

The Real Thing
by Tom Stoppard

State Theatre Company
Of South Australia
Dunstan Playhouse
Adelaide Festival Centre
November 20, 2007. Until December 8.
Tickets $17 – $55. Bookings BASS 131 246

The scene is a living room – lounges, low tables, a carpet square – and Max is drinking wine, waiting for Charlotte to return from abroad. There is light, bright banter when she enters but Max knows that she has left her passport hidden among the cookery books and so this is all a deception and she has traveled away in quite a different sense. Then we realize, in scene two, that we have been watching part of a play, The House of Cards – prophetically written by the playwright, Henry and played by actors – who themselves are about to experience the pangs and pleasures of infidelity and new love.

But what is the real thing ? asks Tom Stoppard, as he constructs a series of Chinese boxes, Russian dolls, plays-within-plays, and end-to-end smoke and mirrors, to pose questions about the nature of truth in art, the possibility of enduring love and the paradoxes of constancy. And pose is the operative word here, because Stoppard’s 1982 comedy is far too self-regarding to deal with most of the interesting enquiries it is purporting to make.

Director Michael Hill has a hard task making this brittle narcissism fly and only partly succeeds. Retaining its eighties setting, designer Dean Hills has kept costumes in stylish restraint, the many scene changes impishly managed by punkish extras in mohawks and tartan skirts.The music is Clash and Pretenders – and Henry’s (that is Stoppard’s) fey fondness for the Crystals and Walker Brothers.

There is a studied Englishness in the performances, all hair flick and flounce, that does little to offset the complacency of the text. As Henry, Marco Chiappi is valiant, as he very capably delivers glib witticisms on love and marriage, agit prop drama and the etymology of the word meretricious. There is also the metaphor of the cricket bat, delivering an effortlessly weighted phrase or idea spinning to the boundary. But Henry is Tom Stoppard as Prospero, and since he is always running the show, you can’t feel much for him when it starts to go emotionally bung.

Ksenja Logos is excellent as Annie and her performance strengthens in the final scenes. Ulli Birve and Rob MacPherson take their opportunities as Max and Charlotte, Luke Clayson is unpersuasive as Billy, and Jamie Harding’s Brodie, (Stoppard’s political playwright as straw man) adds a Glaswegian accent you could stir with a spoon.

Ultimately, though, this conscientious production is trying to revive a house of cards. It is fine to be clever, and even too clever by half. But, here, Tom Stoppard is using his brilliant cricket bat to deliver very little.

“Brittle narcissism delivers little” The Australian, November 22, 2007, p.17.

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