The Invention of Love, Playhouse, Salisbury

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The Independent Culture

Any theatre that is prepared to put on Tom Stoppards's The Invention of Love must be congratulated for its intrepidity. /p>

Any theatre that is prepared to put on Tom Stoppards's The Invention of Love must be congratulated for its intrepidity. It's a magnificent, witty and emotionally piercing piece, but it unashamedly declines to talk down to the public. So particular praise is due to Salisbury Playhouse for having the guts to programme and mount the play's regional premiere. A fantastically erudite dreamlike fantasia about the life of A E Housman, the great classical scholar and lyric poet, the play was first seen at the National Theatre in 1997, in a production by Richard Eyre that was a miracle of tonal control.

Housman's career is evoked in flashbacks, as though relived in the confused mind of the dying 77-year-old hero, whom we encounter in the underworld, waiting to be ferried across the Styx. This is a drama where the classical river in Hades can seamlessly become the Isis in the Oxford of Housman's undergraduate days, and where Charon, the ferryman, can mysteriously affect the chippy tones of a London cabbie.

Eyre's production rose to the technical difficulties of this with a fluid, reverie-like stream of back-projection. It also boasted an outstanding performance from John Wood, who brilliantly embodied the deep contradictions that animate both the man and Stoppards's play. Unrequited passion for his athletic undergrad chum, Moses Jackson, powered both the exacting intensities of Housman's textual scholarship and the compressed, coded ardour of his own lyric poetry (in A Shropshire Lad), with its classical restraint of form containing his romantic homosexual feeling. As the great man himself notes in the play, it was his bad luck to be born in the wrong period. In the ancient world, a man of his persuasion could die in his comrade's arms on the battlefield; with the same inclinations, he was entitled, in Victorian times, to languish alone and near death in Reading Gaol.

Richard Beecham's production at Salisbury is very creditable. A fluent piece of staging uses witty sound effects to present scenes such as the croquet game with big-name savants in Oxford and the billiards match involving key London opinion-formers with a droll clarity. A recessed stage behind a glistening transparent curtain becomes the place where the most charged and painfully recurrent memories are enacted, such as the track racing of the beautiful, unreachable Moses (a fine Clive Standen).

Christopher Ravenscroft delivers the difficult, virtuosic speeches with peppery panache, but is too young for the older Housman, which blunts some of the impact of the matchlessly moving encounter with his younger self (Robin Laing). The second half is weakened by an Oscar Wilde who is bland rather than the wrecked wedding-cake of a wise old queen that is required. A civilised evening, but as yet an insufficiently searing one.

To 26 March (01722 320333)

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