From great pain comes great art, as the old adage puts it, and love has caused more than its fair share of pain. It’s also been the inspiration for some of the most enduring works for the stage ever written. But, for a some considerable time, it wasn’t a topic that featured overly in the works of Tom Stoppard. His reputation was built on cerebral, meta-textual plays like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Night & Day and Jumpers, plays more concerned with philosophy, satire and subtext than romantic love and the pitfalls it can create.
The Real Thing, therefore, was seen as a bit of a departure for Stoppard on its 1982 debut. The intellectual exploration and the passion for language remained, but this mediation on love, adultery and the pain – and jealousy that can be generated by both – seemed to elevate Stoppard to a new level. It was both funny and romantic, yet about as far from a rom-com as you could imagine.
This revival by the English Touring Theatre is a welcome reminder of what a fine piece of theatre it is. Kate Saxton’s production retains the 1980s setting, but it never wears its period design on its sleeve; indeed, apart from props such as vinyl records and a corded telephone, this could be set in any era. Which is fitting, as this is a timeless play about people and the decisions that they make. Stoppard uses a ‘play within a play’ to introduce his characters: Max suspects his wife Charlotte is having an affair, and confronts her about it. The next scene gradually makes it clear that Max and Charlotte are actors, speaking Henry’s words. Henry, in turn, is having an affair with Max’s aspiring actress wife Annie, and that opening scene foreshadows the trials and tribulations of their future relationship.
The writing is frequently dazzling, touching not just on love, but on theatre itself, the business of writing (featuring his famous cricket bat analogy), philosophy, and the nature of fidelity and whether there can ever truly be such a thing as free love. Often described as Stoppard’s most autobiographical piece (but always denied as such by the man itself), Henry is a fascinating character: he’s initially supercilious, vain and too concerned with his own public profile; when we first meet him, he’s agonising over what his choices for Desert Island Discs may say about him.
Yet as the play progresses, it’s possible to gain some sympathy for Henry as he moves from adulterer to cuckold, and is reduced to ghostwriting a TV drama for Annie, based on her campaign to free a imprisoned soldier, Brodie. Gerald Kyd is quite brilliant as Henry, imbuing the character with an enormous amount of charisma, and displaying some terrific chemistry with Marianne Oldham’s Annie. She is also excellent, portraying Annie in both the first flush of new love, and then becoming increasingly restless and tired of Henry’s narcissm.
In fact, all the cast do well with characters who are layered and nuanced: human. Sarah Ball plays Henry’s ex-wife Charlotte, who it turns out was somewhat of a serial adulteress herself, while Simon Scardifield, in the small but vital role of Max is almost painful to watch, crumbling when he realises that Annie is about to leave him. Georgina Leonidas is also a terrific in another small role, that of Henry and Charlotte’s daughter Debbie, who debates the nature of free love and monogamy with her father.
Despite what Stoppard may seem to be saying about the transitory and temporary nature of the majority of relationships, this is not too downbeat or demoralizing a play. Indeed, the final scene ends things on an optimistic note, suggesting that love is the only ‘real thing’ that matters. Stoppard’s fondness for grandstanding speeches can be a bit too much at times, and it’s also possible to decry the play as being overtly concerned with middle-class problems. Yet as this revival demonstrates, The Real Thing remains a startling, painful, and often very funny, dissection of matters of the heart.