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