Tom Stoppard built his reputation on a series of cerebral dazzlers (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Travesties) but finally laid his heart on the line in 1982 with The Real Thing.
A comic study of adultery and the nexus of art and life, it revolves around the figure of Henry, a successful English playwright (famed for cerebral dazzlers, no less) who leaves his actress wife Charlotte to live with, well, another actress, Annie, who in turn leaves her actor husband, Max.
The separations appear to be conducted with a very English veneer of reserve. Wounded pride is expressed in cutting asides. No one comes to blows. Difficulties loom, however, in Annie’s commitment to a soldier and anti-war activist who writes a clunky but passionate protest play while in prison, and in her on-tour dalliance with a young actor.
In precis, you can almost hear the French doors creaking. But Stoppard has plenty more going on beneath the surface of his depiction of infidelity among the cultural elite.
The Real Thing considers the intersection of fiction and reality, fidelity and betrayal, what is a good lie and what isn’t, the difference between a playwright and a propagandist, and, as highlighted in Henry’s love of 1960s bubblegum pop, the grey area between art and entertainment. Who gets the final word, for example, on whether Bach is better than Procul Harum?
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It is a quality piece of playwriting craft: erudite, elegant and structurally playful and Simon Phillips’ production for the Sydney Theatre Company delivers it with understated authority.
Designer Charles Davis’ set – a mechanical marvel of sliding panels and a revolve – houses the play in a Scandi-cool, vintage-minimal environment. There’s a lot to appreciate, little to distract and the odd item to covet.
Phillips has cast from the younger end of the plausible spectrum and the performances are uniformly good, led by Johnny Carr and Geraldine Hakewill as Henry and Annie.
Carr nails the superciliousness and the smart guy sex appeal, though there are times when the brilliance of Stoppard’s invention seems to reside outside of the man we observe on stage. That’s not unusual in a Stoppard play, however.
Also, the passage of time hasn’t been entirely favourable to Henry, whose defence of his art sounds perilously like mansplaining some 40 years after it was written.
Carr and Hakewill’s post-interval scenes, in which the play’s more heartfelt content resides, are gripping.
Charlie Garber brings a touch of the barking eccentric to the role of Max. Rachel Gordon wields the sarcasm very effectively as the spurned Charlotte.
Shiv Palekar is very appealing as Billy, the keen young actor looking for an out-of-town ‘showmance’ with the older and more sophisticated Annie. Julia Robertson makes a good impression in the one-off appearance of Debbie, Henry’s daughter. Dorje Swallow is a suitably gruff Brodie, the soldier-playwright who turns up very late in the piece. The part feels like an afterthought, however.
Beautifully lit (Nick Schlieper) and seamlessly moved through, The Real Thing glides so smoothly that you may find yourself craving some more overt turbulence and grit. Think of it – to extend Stoppard’s famous “cricket bat” analogy further – as an evening of graceful stroke play on a perfect wicket.