The Real Thing, Tom Stoppard’s acclaimed classic from 1983, is playing at The King’s Theatre Edinburgh this week bringing with it those great unanswerable questions of the nature of love and the ever elusive definition of “the real thing”. Our classic tale of two couples is brought to life on stage (and off stage) here by
Adam Jackson Smith – Max
Rebecca Johnson – Charlotte
Laurence Fox – Henry
Flora Spencer-Longhurst - Annie
Henry is “THE” playright of his generation and with his current play starring his wife Charlotte and friend Max in the roles of a couple whose marriage is falling apart, Henry realises that his own marriage and life are starting to mirror his fictional work, and that his affair with Max’s wife Annie is probably the last link in the chain that will destroy everything around him.
In the programme notes, Tom Stoppard is clear that the initial driving concept of this work was the idea that the first scene turns out to have been written by a character in the second scene, but there is also something very Shakespearean about this constantly changing play within a play concept. The very nature of the work does mean that the audience have to pay close attention to our characters as to where they are and what they are referring to at times (play or their real lives), and at times I did feel that there were no strong enough differences between our real life characters and their “play” counterparts. On the other hand though, that blending of elements did make defining “The Real Thing” more elusive throughout the performance.
This is a strong and experienced cast, and this showed at every level. Although firmly set visually in the 1980s, Tom Stoppard has wisely again chosen not to update this work as the central questions about love and the romantic idealism that Henry has of love (at odds to me with him choosing to have an affair with a friend’s wife) are universal and timeless. Time though is a funny thing, it cannot be touched, held or examined, but somehow periods in time have their own very distinct feel, and somehow this production does capture the feeling of the early 1980s. There is something very British about this work though, and I suspect that the reaction to it across the world very much depends on the social attitudes of wherever it is playing.
Like all the very best works of literature, “The Real Thing” is asking questions about so much more than the central themes, and much of the pleasure of this performance is the way in which Tom Stoppard works with words and uses them. Like Henry, he has an obvious faith in the power of the spoken and the written word and the beauty that a skilled writer can create with them. Questions about how words and art are used by those both in and out of political power are also examined here, and it is always a joy to watch a cast that has the skill to bring all of these concepts to life.
Also important here, the clever of music that is put on the turntable by our characters to reflect both their personal identities and set scene changes.
Everything starts with “The Word” and no matter how skilled a cast may be, without the beauty and power of a well written script they have nothing to work with. Tom Stoppard is a master wordsmith, and theatre today, as when this work was written, desperately needs more Tom Stoppards who have the ability to create new works out of nothing but their own imagination and love of putting words together.
Review by Tom King