WHEN THE Real Thing was first produced in 1982, it aroused considerable surprise. A Tom Stoppard play that bares its heart on the subject of love? It seemed as unlikely as hearing of a Noel Coward play on the issue of female circumcision. Indeed, in interviews, Stoppard warned that love, for him, had had its innings as a dramatic topic. Happily, that is not how things turned out and, in The Invention of Love (1997), he produced a masterpiece about the effects of consuming homosexual devotion in the lives of A E Housman and Oscar Wilde.
My worry was that, viewed from the perspective of this later achievement, The Real Thing would seem like one of those irritating exercises where a dramatist talks himself out of a key creative inhibition in public. But David Leveaux's beautifully acted revival confirms that the tricksy, playful mode of the piece is cleverly crafted to project, by poignant paradox, the messy, inchoate nature of love.
Played with a lovely, light and seductive teasing quality by the excellent Stephen Dillane, the central character, Henry, is like a parody of the Stoppard of popular reputation - all witty banter, political detachment, galling poise, verbal pedantry and unease when it comes to writing about unguarded emotion. We watch an architect, who thinks he has rumbled his wife's infidelity, toying with her from his position of superior awareness on her return from a foreign trip. Our view of the episode alters radically, though, when we realise that it is in fact a sequence from House of Cards, one of Henry's defensively brittle plays where it's characteristic that the cuckolded man is all too adept at fending off hurt in badinage and the female character is a cipher who turns out not to be guilty.
The dramatist subsequently embarks on a love affair with his leading actor's wife, Annie, who is performed with intelligence and passion by the luminous Jennifer Ehle. It's the achievement of this even-handed production and Dillane's subtly sympathetic performance to make you see Henry's romantically absolutist philosophy of love both from his own point of view, and that of Annie and his ex-wife Charlotte (played with a nice sulky sense of humour by Sarah Woodward). Is his idea of commitment just a self-serving opt-out from those daily renegotiations that a relationship needs? Would a man who held nothing in reserve be worth loving?
It's a shame that the couple finally resolve their differences in the joint humiliation of a leftwing arsonist and would-be playwright - a character who enables Stoppard to equate activism with loutish illiteracy. That lapse aside, The Real Thing is the genuine article.
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