Theatre: Review: A patently good invention

The Invention of Love

Cottesloe, RNT, London

Richard Eyre brings out the shining intelligence and heartbreaking intensity of Tom Stoppard's latest play, writes Paul Taylor

When he was in his forties, A E Housman - severe classical scholar and haunting lyric poet - embarked on an affair with a 23-year-old one-eyed gondolier called Andrea. For him, it was a case of "Life in Venice". You'd have no way of guessing any of this, though, from , Tom Stoppard's brilliant and, at times, heartbreaking play about the great man.

In a scenic sense, Andrea would have fitted in well here. Beautifully directed by Richard Eyre, the play takes us into a dream landscape where the septuagenarian Housman (John Wood) has just died and is being ferried across the Styx by a classical Charon (Michael Bryant) who would have nothing to learn from a London cab driver about matey unhelpfulness. With a naughty nod to Three Men in a Boat, the undergraduate Housman (Paul Rhys) is rowed in by his Oxford chums. Just the place, then, for Andrea to pop his pole. Thematically, though, he would have muddied as well as congested the waters.

Oscar Wilde, who enters the play several times as an offstage rumour then, in person, as an exiled scandal (Michael Fitzgerald), tells the posthumous Housman that the facts are only facts - "truth is quite another thing and is the work of the imagination". In that sense, Andrea is only a fact; the truth is Moses Jackson, the heterosexual scientist and keen athlete for whom Housman developed an unrequited, life-long passion. He was real, all right, but, as one of the many meanings of the play's title suggests, Housman's love turned him into a partly imaginary being - the heroic comrade-in-arms, from the Greek classics.

Forever unobtainable even in the Underworld, where John Wood reaches out in agony and in vain as the youthful Moses glides by, he's the man for whom, as Stoppard's Housman puts it here, he would have died if he had had the luck. Wilde of course, had that "luck" in spades. You feel it would be impertinent to speak of winners and losers as you watch this out-of-time meeting between the writers. "The choice was not always between renunciation and folly," cries Housman, savagely nostalgic for the classical past. Nor, in fact, was it always such a clear-cut one for him. When Stoppard's Wilde refers to "stolen waters", you could easily forget that this phrase also crops up in one of Housman's then unpublished poems. He was no stranger to the Parisian bains de vapeur. But art cannot put in everything and, in Stoppard's hands, the two writers become powerful symbols of repression and abandon. The point is that both positions produced lasting art.

The confusion and hardening contemporary attitudes to homosexuality are aired in vignettes full of learned larkiness, where the greats of the period (Jowett, Pater, Ruskin et al) behave like hobbyhorse-riding escapees from the Alice books. There's the intriguing conjecture that the infamous Labouchere Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Bill of 1885, which provided against "any act of gross indecency", was introduced to expose the absurdity of the whole bill - a ploy that tragically backfired.

It's the older Housman's encounter with his unwitting younger self that, superbly acted here, provides the most moving scene. Like two lonely, awkward people who have suddenly found a soul mate, the nervous, burningly intense undergraduate and the buttoned-up, passionately pedantic professor sit side by side on a bench enthusing each other. They are clearly one and the same person but, divided by the cataclysm of Moses's rejection (still-to-come for the younger man), they are like jigsaw pieces that don't quite fit. Watching them together, though, you see that the poetry and scholarship are driven by the same fierce desire and that it would be simplistic to regard Housman's textual criticism as a displacement activity. The undergraduate shakes the old man's hand with compassion but also disowns responsibility for his unhappiness and determines to have a less miserable fate. It's almost unbearably moving.

I have probably made this work seem less witty and diabolically clever than it is. But it was the emotion that got me. Richard Eyre's direction makes the play's heart beat loud. It's wonderful that he leaves the National on such a note of triumph.

In rep. Booking: 0171-928 2252

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

    £35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

    Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

    £45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

    Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

    £60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

    Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power