fri 03/07/2020

The Real Thing, Old Vic | reviews, news & interviews

The Real Thing, Old Vic

The Real Thing, Old Vic

Has Stoppard's classic dated in the age of reality TV?

A type of writer: Toby Stephens with Hattie Morahan in The Real Thing

By general consent, The Real Thing expresses an almost perfect balance between the brilliance of its dialogue and the ideas examined on one hand, and the depth and range of human feelings on the other. Anna Mackmin’s brisk and dynamic take on the play, first performed nearly 30 years ago, to a large extent succeeds in recontextualising what is surely a classic, for a subsequent generation of viewers.

Viewers rather than theatre-goers perhaps, because one of the principal differences between the cultural baggage of those who would have seen the first production at the Strand Theatre in 1982, and those who see it in this latest production at The Old Vic now, is that we all watch an awful lot more telly than we did, and have subsequently become much more programmed to respond in the desired manner to the artificial constraints and the psycholinguistic markers suggested by the sitcom, the romcom and the reality show.

It is hard to imagine now that once, there was no Big Brother house, with its farrago of faked “real-time events”, and no back-to-back programming of Friends, Sex and the City and Will & Grace, with their endless examinations of the human heart, its expectations and delusions, at an industrial level of output. Mindful of this, Lez Brotherston’s compact, kinetic set, encased by a broad white frame that clearly recalls the surround of a cathode tube-era television set, and Hugh Vanstone’s sharp, slightly strident lighting design, both contrive to suggest the brittle two-dimensionality of a sitcom setting. In Friends, they pop endlessly in and out of each other's flats; here the same space is cleverly reworked as a double location.

Although there is nothing obviously dated about Stoppard’s characters, their inner motivations and their endlessly paraded hang-ups, it is hard to conceive of a modern equivalent of this play that did not engage more with our current, and equally two-dimensional, fixation with celebrity. Toby Stephens’s playwright Henry is a brilliant wordsmith, capable both of sparkling perorations on the nature of love, philosophy and professionalism, as well as wittily crafted comedies. He is arrogant and supercilious, and tirelessly self-referential. He is, when we meet him, at the top of his game, respected and well paid. But even he doesn't perceive himself as a celebrity.

As the protean craftsman-puppetmaster who creates the identities for his characters, and then dominates the lives of those around him - didactic and pedantic, he's an early Thatcher-era Professor Henry Higgins - Henry is very much the alpha male, especially when contrasted with his chump of an actor friend Max (Barnaby Kay), whose partner Annie he poaches, with a certain droit de seigneur.

Stephens is pitch-perfect in his delivery of Henry’s views on authenticity and literary craftsmanship, and his (now quaintly old-fashioned) adherence to the idea of The Canon, and the contingent hierarchy of artistic merit that derives from its certainties. And he plays along nicely with Henry’s parallel, and clearly paradoxical devotion to the cheesiest of pop, which he archly talks up as though it existed on some higher moral plane, requiring some masterful textual interpretation. From hermeneutics to Herman’s Hermits.

But when his world comes crashing down (having been a player himself, Hattie Morahan’s apparently fey and pixy-like Annie fells him with her infidelity), it is very hard to care. There is simply no pathos there. There is a deep irony in the fact that for all his eloquence and glib articulacy, Henry simply cannot express proficiently on paper (we are still in the pre-computer age, remember: along with his transistor radio, record player and early-Eighties BT phone with that irritating ring tone, he bashes out his work on a clunky little typewriter), the pent-up feelings of love, and the suffering contingent to love, that he feels inside. Not so much writer's block as lover's block, perhaps.

As Henry’s spurned wife Charlotte, Fenella Woolgar is feisty and resourceful, managing to reconfigure her previous sense of commitment to him into detachment and worldly wisdom. But her steeliness doesn't engender our affection either. Perhaps the only endearing one of them is the young actor Billy, played with coltish enthusiasm by promising newcomer Tom Austen, whose casual dalliance with Annie in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore brings hard-hearted Henry to a jelly-quivering crisis of jealousy.

So the four main leads all manage to run through the gamut of emotions, flirting with the wilder shores of sexual passion, while remaining essentially uptight, very much as the old continental stereotype of the emotionally inhibited Brit would have it. Princess Diana had only just appeared on our collective horizon when Sir Tom wrote this play: it is interesting that the easily provoked, mawkish emotiveness that she – along with the sitcom and reality TV by which we have been culturally colonised – have come to represent, should be so singularly absent from this production.

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