Tom Stoppard's dazzling 1988 spy thriller, set amid the turbulence of the Cold War, hasn't dated. In Rachel Kavanaugh's cracking production, there are uncanny contemporary references and it's all surprisingly entertaining, the plot borne along by Stoppard's brilliant wordplay and an exceptional cast. What the spies and their masters are really fighting for is lost in the chess game of espionage.
High-tech lighting illuminates minimalist sets – elegant conference table, chesterfield leather chairs. A narrow high-level window shows a truncated giraffe's head, indicating that the agents are meeting in a zoo and also suggesting Stoppard's absurdism, and an analogy between animal and human behaviour.
The plot follows the female spymaster Hapgood (Josie Lawrence), who, assisted by her superior, Blair (Christopher Ettridge), must expose the source of a leak to the Soviets. Is it the Geneva-based nuclear physicist Joseph Kerner (John Hodgkinson), or their own double-dealer, Ridley (David Birrell)?
The scientist wittily uses physics to describe the relationship between spies. "A double-agent," he says, "is like a trick of the light." Blair wants to know if he is "ours or theirs". Kerner replies cryptically, "The act of observing determines what's what."
At the start of Act II, Blair questions Joseph across a long table. The dramatic irony is that Hapgood and Ridley are invisibly seated on the other side of a two-way glass partition. Hapgood's thoughts engage with Joseph, animatedly prompting him. Joseph, it transpires, is her ex-lover. Their boy, Joe, is in public school, and inevitably gets caught up in the web as bait.
In this postmodern world there's no longer ideological certainty. Hapgood is twice seen cheering her son on the rugby field. It's hinted, from her pleading with Joseph in Russian, that were it not for Joe, she would join him. But, what separates them now isn't ideology but cultural difference. We see her passion for a game that means nothing to him. When he defected to the West, he "wasn't seeking asylum, but an IBM computer".
After Stoppard's brilliant and blackly funny narrative, the denouement is surprisingly moving. What prevails are human values. Individuals survive the system, but have to forfeit what's most valuable to extricate themselves. Kavanaugh's stylish production breathes new life into a work that is more than just a clever intellectual feat; it's a deep, philosophical tribute to a genre.
To 24 May (0113-213 7700; www.wyplayhouse.com)
Peter Rose, Researcher, WorcesterReuse content