thu 30/05/2024

Hapgood, Hampstead Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Hapgood, Hampstead Theatre

Hapgood, Hampstead Theatre

Lesser-known Stoppard gets a major revival

Mother love: Lisa Dillon and Alec Newman in Tom Stoppard's 'Hapgood'Alastair Muir

A supposed Stoppardian footnote gets a first-class reclamation in Howard Davies's sizzling revival of Hapgood, the espionage-themed drama from 1988 that resonates intellectually and emotionally to a degree it didn't begin to achieve at a West End premiere that I recall almost three decades on.

As if taking a leaf from the same play's subsequent (and much-improved) 1994 New York Lincoln Center premiere, a once-abstruse work finds the necessary pulse to keep audiences engaged in a text that comes positioned both chronologically and temperamentally between The Real Thing and Arcadia (Hapgood's original staging starred the first leads of The Real Thing, Felicity Kendal and the late Roger Rees.)

Sure, you may find yourself debating just how many versions of one or another of the characters there in fact are in an evening that posits bluffs of multiple sorts right through to the final curtain, but Davies and a crack creative team headed by a pitch-perfect Lisa Dillon (pictured above) in the title role find the emotional juice coursing beneath a plot-heavy script. The result is one of the theatre year's happiest surprises. 

In 1988, we hadn't yet experienced the abiding pleasures of Arcadia, the Stoppard masterwork that came five years later, but it's almost impossible not to hear elements of that later play's rapturous paean to iterated algorithms and the like in some of the extended verbal jags that Stoppard hands in Hapgood to the character of the Russian double-agent Kerner (the superlative Alec Newman). Passion has always underpinned Stoppard's outpourings, on topics here ranging from electrons to twinning to the absence of God in the landscape of particle physics, and it's the primary gift of this staging to lend clarity to the hop-scotching between public lavatories, hotel rooms, and government corridors in a narrative that might give even John le Carré pause.  

The opening scene, indeed, offers an extended and wordless roundelay set in a men's changing room and involving multiple briefcases, towels and a mission that somehow doesn't go according to plan. Word was at the time of its New York debut that this play's then-leading lady, Stockard Channing, was angling for the film rights, and Davies's staging goes further than I have ever come across with Stoppard in suggesting just how this of all language-driven dramatists might shift his work to the screen. The title character of the intelligence chief, Elizabeth Hapgood, offers a terrific opportunity for a woman to assert herself in a man's world, bearing in mind that this play was written before the Carrie Mathisons of the world had entered the cultural lexicon (there's an apt Thatcher-era reference that those who saw Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady will recognise at once.)

Hapgood will never entirely satisfy playgoers who crave absolute linearity, any more than Arcadia means much to those who don't track that play's Sidley Park hermit. Suffice it to say that Stoppard's pleasure this go-round seems to lie in having his own shot at a landscape that we know nowadays from film and TV (the concurrent appearances of Bridge of Spies and London Spy couldn't make this revival better-timed). You might guess (correctly, as it happens) that a first-act scene at a shooting range more or less requires further gunfire before play's end, even as Dillon's expertly judged Hapgood – known in the workplace as "Mother" – is at her most human in those scenes wherein this elegantly appointed careerist must deal with maternal issues of her own involving her rugby-playing young son, Joe (Adam Cansfield). 

Davies's acute staging mines the private anxieties that coexist with lives spent in a public crossfire, and the director is abetted at every turn by the fluidity of his customary designer, Ashley Martin-Davis, alongside Ian William Galloway's shifting video wall of images that lend visual intrigue to the nearly cinematic cross-cutting: a second-act hotel room is especially arresting. The cast, in turn, are on top of the complex mechanics of the plot – quantum mechanics included – with Newman's Russian physicist-spy surely landing the Scotsman some sort of award for the year's most protean accent work, following his performance over the summer in the decidedly American landscape of The Motherf**ker with the Hat. (Stoppard has fun with Kerner's efforts to sound colloquially English, not to mention the character's puzzling out of a phrase like "prime suspect".) 

Playing Hapgood's traitorous (or is he?) colleague-turned-boss, Tim McMullan (pictured above) lends an unexpected element of Noel Coward to ostensibly dry terrain, and Gerald Kyd is in cool control of the dual (or are they?) assignments of the murderous operative, Ridley. But amid a verbal landscape where the correct use of the word "blown" is debated to comic effect early on, blow me if the finish against expectation doesn't bring a lump to the throat: that cool theatrical operative, Stoppard, is – and not for the first time – revealed to be a romantic after all.

It's the primary gift of this staging to lend clarity to the hop-scotching between locations in a narrative that might give even John le Carré pause


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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