The opening was vintage Stoppard. It is 1936. The poet AE Housman has died. He is being ferried across the Styx by Michael Bryant's Charon. As Charon muses "I had that Dionysus in the back of my boat," Elysian merges with Oxford University and a rowing boat comes into view.
In this dreamlike play of fractured memories, 77-year-old Housman confronts his 18-year-old self at Oxford: "I am not as young as I was, whereas you of course are."
The Oxford of Housman's youth contains not just an ageing Ruskin and an undergraduate Oscar Wilde, but the birth of the Aesthetic movement, challenging Victorian notions of art and morality, and the battle for supremacy between classicism and science. It also contains homosexual passions, laced with wit and subversion in the case of Wilde, and with anguish and introspection in Housman's love for a fellow undergraduate.
All this is tackled by Stoppard in a play so complex and multi-layered, so driven by intense debates, that the dramatic imperative sometimes takes second place - a change from the Seventies when the author would explore moral philosophy to a highly dramatic backdrop.
Eyre's brilliant casting ensures that the production is ultimately poignant and moving. John Wood as Housman the elder gives a masterful performance of acceptance of a life whose grand passion had to be contained in poetry. Paul Rhys as his younger self has a voice of anguished craving, a face of shining innocence, and is sure to be a star beyond the National's walls.
Both Rhys and Wood were hugely applauded by an audience that included the author.Reuse content