Theatre review: And the latest of these is Love

There is only one place where the mythical figure of Charon might steer his boat along the same stretch of water as a boat with three chaps and a dog in it. Virgil meets Jerome K Jerome: it could only happen in a play by Tom Stoppard.

His latest, The Invention of Love, opens with AE Housman, author of "A Shropshire Lad" and the pre-eminent classicist of his generation, standing on the banks of the river Styx. Some scholars think the Styx was a river in Arcadia. It would be neat if it was: for Stoppard's awesomely erudite and entertaining play springs in many ways from the same source as his last one. It shares with Arcadia (as well as the radio play In the Native State, later staged as Indian Ink) a fascination with the interconnected- ness between then and now, the unreliability of evidence, the haphazardness of what survives.

We first see John Wood as the elderly Housman, in a three-piece suit, blinking at the spotlight, arching a whiskery eyebrow and peering into the gloom. Dry ice swirls around his boots. He reacts well to the sight: "I'm dead then. Good." A memory play that divides its central character into his younger and older self, The Invention of Love tracks back from Housman's death in 1936 to his arrival at Oxford in the late 1870s, cutting between Hades and Oxford, Bayswater, Ealing, Shropshire and Dieppe. Those are only a few of the directions in which the play travels. Time is another, as the conversation shuttles between pagan and Christian societies with the nimbleness of someone flicking channels. The way Housman talks about them, the Sacred Band of 300 Thebans, who died as comrades in arms at the battle of Chaeronea, might have been chaps in another college.

Wood plays the 77-year-old "AEH" with a tremendous mix of pedagogical choler, scepticism and lingering pain. His command of Stop- pard's elaborately structured speeches is masterly: wafting a cupped hand in the air, like a conductor bringing in the wind section for a delicate passage, Wood narrows his eyes and skewers a fellow critic. The play brims with insider knowledge, peppery observation and magisterial insight. Stoppard may introduce all sorts of activities - croquet, billiards, boating, picnics, athletics - but these are mere concessions to the business in hand. Talking. Up here, in this heady stratosphere of learning, Latin and Greek exert a seductive pull. While some playwrights lecture us in the belief that we're stupid, Stoppard lectures us in the belief that we're intelligent.

At Oxford, the young Housman - beautifully played by Paul Rhys as a quivering thoroughbred, a fiercely sensitive and gentle soul - meets Moses Jackson (Robert Portal), an athlete and scientist, who becomes the unrequited love of his life. He also learns about a fellow undergraduate, Oscar Wilde. Stoppard has returned to Wilde, but this time he uses his life as the background for his portrait of Housman.

When Housman comes down from Oxford, without a degree, he takes lodgings in Bayswater with Jackson. They both work at Her Majesty's Patent Office. One question that Housman is not required to deliberate on is who exactly invented love. He could tell his employers (as he tells us) about Cornelius Gallus, whose one extant line puts him ahead of Propertius as the first of the Roman love elegists.

Questions about the love between men - what it is and how our conception of it has changed - are realised in three strikingly emotional scenes. One occurs when the stoutly heterosexual Jackson challenges Housman over whether he is "sweet" on him. Another occurs when Housman meets Wilde (after his release from prison) and the destinies - of the introvert and the extrovert - are vigorously contrasted.

The third occurs when the older and younger Housman sit on a bench in Hades. The red and weathered face stares at the white and translucent one, aware of the grief ahead. Here Housman's second passion is powerfully demonstrated. In an uncompromising defence of textual criticism ("the crown and summit of scholarship"), Wood reveals the damage done to a Catullus poem by a misplaced comma. "It's where we're nearest to our humanness," says Rhys, later. "Useless knowledge for its own sake."

Stoppard broadens the social context to include fruity cameos of the Oxford intellectuals Ruskin, Jowett and Pater (seized with relish by Benjamin Whitrow, John Carlisle and Robin Soans), who play croquet and pronounce on art, education and morality, and the London journalists Henry Labouchere, WT Stead and Frank Harris (the same actors, the same relish), who play billiards and pronounce on newspapers, sex and morality. If the joke quota in this mature, impassioned play is stricter than you might expect, the aphorisms are in full flow ("biography is the mesh through which our real life escapes", and so on). Anthony Ward's set of tall library shelves with grey leather-bound tomes acts as an oblique tribute to Stoppard's voluminous research. The Invention of Love is Richard Eyre's final production as director of the National. This week - and it could have been other ones - four of the "Five Best Plays" recommended on the Going Out page are on at his theatre. We've been very lucky.

The story behind the musical Maddie is as appealing as the musical itself. It opened in Salisbury to rave notices , but failed to transfer. The Daily Telegraph's critic told his readers and they responded with pounds 150,000. Last week it opened in the West End. In another musical developed out of workshops with Stephen Sondheim (a genre I'm becoming wary of), Nick and Jan move into a dilapidated San Francisco apartment and discover it is haunted by a 1920s dancer, Madeleine Marsh. She takes over the body of Jan - both roles played by the radiant American newcomer Summer Rognlie - and Jan now has the chance to do something about her "nothinglife".

Maddie isn't terrible. It has clever-enough lyrics by Shaun McKenna, one of those just-what-you-might-expect showbiz scores from Stephen Keeling, and a book (McKenna and Steven Dexter) that mines similar themes to the Donmar's Sondheimesque Enter the Guardsman: stale marriages and having sex with your partner while thinking they're someone else. You need to be Sondheim or Peter Nichols to jolt us with an insight about marriage: Maddie approaches it through the tired conventions of musical comedy.

The Comedie Francaise returned to London for the first time in 25 years to open the French Theatre season with a cooly passionate production by their artistic director Jean-Pierre Miquel of Marivaux's psychological comedy Les Fausses Confidences. Miquel's semi-abstract set of a curving wooden wall and billowing curtain carries unfortunate hints of a car showroom. But elsewhere in this immaculately poised production, as the penniless young lawyer Dorante attempts to win a wealthy young widow, Araminte, the deceptions, shifts in status, and unexpected blossoming of relationships are made impressively clear. To see the elegant Comte (Andrzej Seweryn) seated at the table, with shiny shoes and white button-hole, with one hand on his silver-topped cane, the other holding a glass of red wine, is to be reminded of something crucial about playing Marivaux. It isn't gulp, gulp, gulp. It's sniff ... sip ... sniff ... sip ... sniff ... sip. The distinctions are exacting.

'The Invention of Love': Cottesloe, SE1 (0171 928 2252). 'Maddie': Lyric, W1 (0171 494 5045).

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Arts and Entertainment
Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters performs at Suncorp Stadium on February 24, 2015 in Brisbane, Australia.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans had initially distanced himself from the possibility of taking the job

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
British author Matt Haig

books
Arts and Entertainment
Homeland star Damian Lewis is to play a British Secret Service agent in Susanna White's film adaptation of John le Carre's Our Kind of Traitor

Film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
    Paris Fashion Week

    Paris Fashion Week

    Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
    A year of the caliphate:

    Isis, a year of the caliphate

    Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
    Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

    Marks and Spencer

    Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
    'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

    'We haven't invaded France'

    Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
    Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

    Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

    The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
    7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

    Remembering 7/7 ten years on

    Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
    Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

    They’re here to help

    We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

    'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
    What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

    What exactly does 'one' mean?

    Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue
    E L James's book Grey is a reminder of how the phenomenon of the best-seller works

    Grey is a reminder of how the phenomenon of the best-seller works

    It's hard to understand why so many are buying it – but then best-selling was ever an inexact science, says DJ Taylor
    Behind the scenes of the world's most experimental science labs

    World's most experimental science labs

    The photographer Daniel Stier has spent four years gaining access to some of the world's most curious scientific experiments
    It's the stroke of champions - so why is the single-handed backhand on the way out?

    Single-handed backhand: on the way out?

    If today's young guns wish to elevate themselves to the heights of Sampras, Graf and Federer, it's time to fire up the most thrilling shot in tennis
    HMS Saracen: Meeting the last survivor of a submarine found 72 years after it was scuttled

    HMS Saracen

    Meeting the last survivor of a submarine found 72 years after it was scuttled
    7/7 bombings 10 years on: Martine Wright lost both legs in the attack – she explains how her experience since shows 'anything is possible'

    7/7 bombings 10 years on

    Martine Wright lost both legs in the attack – she explains how her experience since shows 'anything is possible'