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
  • 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

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: New Lift Sales Executive - Lift and Elevators

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A challenging opportunity for a...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss