First Night: Stoppard love story retains its charms

The Real Thing Donmar Warehouse London

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 incongruous as hearing of a Noel Coward play that bared its soul about the ethics of female circumcision.

Indeed, in interviews, Stoppard warned that love had now had its innings as a dramatic topic.

"As far as I'm concerned, this is all I'll do," he claimed. Happily, that is not how things turned out and in The Invention of Love (1997) he produced a masterpiece about the contrasting effects of all-consuming passion in the lives of A E Housman and Oscar Wilde.

My worry was that, seen 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 elegant, fluent and beautifully acted revival at the Donmar confirms that the tricksy, playful and highly patterned mode of the piece is most cleverly crafted to project, by poignant paradox, the messy inchoate nature of love and the unresolvable questions it raises.

Played with a light and seductively teasing quality by the excellent Stephen Dillane, the central character, Henry, is like a parody of the Stoppard of popular reputation - all witty badinage, political detachment, galling poise and unease when it comes to writing about unguarded emotion.

The first scene, like many that follow, plays games with our perception. We watch an architect, who thinks he has rumbled his wife's infidelity, toying with her on her return from a foreign trip. Our view of this episode alters radically when we realise that it is, in fact, a sequence from House of Cards, one of Henry's defensively brittle plays.

The dramatist subsequently embarks on a love affair with his leading actor's wife, Annie, who is performed with a splendidly stubborn intelligence and passion by the luminous Jennifer Ehle.

Through artfully reangled real-life recapitulations of that first scene, Stoppard's drama brings Henry to a position where he really might learn the "self-knowledge through pain" which he had mistakenly thought was the subject of his own House of Cards.

"There are no commitments, only bargains, and they have to be made again every day," proclaims Henry's first wife, Charlotte (played with a nice, sulky wit by Sarah Woodward).

She accuses him of thinking of commitment as being like a concrete platform that can take any strain you put on it.

Henry's unearned and self-serving romanticism is called into question from another angle by Annie, who warns him that he won't be worth loving if he doesn't reserve a little bit of himself where she is not important.

It is a shame that the couple finally resolve their differences in the joint humiliation of a left-wing arsonist who had been a protege of Annie's and who had enabled Stoppard to set up an unfair contest between the artist as sophisticated writer and the would-be artist as illiterate activist. That lapse aside, The Real Thing is the genuine article.

Paul Taylor

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the iWatch for you? Well, it depends if you want for the fitness tech, or the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • 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.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own