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Photograph by Lisa Tomasetti

The Real Thing

Sydney Theatre Company, presents by THE REAL THING, by Tom Stoppard, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. 9th September - 26th October, 2019

THE REAL THING, is a play by Tom Stoppard, from the approximate middle period of his output – 1982. Prior to this it was the intellectual brilliance of his word play and juggling of various viewpoints that gave his work the effervescence of the best cold champagne that money could buy. Exhilarating nights in the theatre that made one feel smarter and wittier than one had suspected, known, of oneself ever being: ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD (1968); JUMPERS (1972); TRAVESTIES (1976). THE REAL THING, had all the wit as usual, but at its centre it had, as well, a sensitive beating heart that felt that it, at last, could feel the ecstasy of love and the bruises of despair of that same thing called love, and could safely, truly, express it and discuss it, in public, on the stage. Later work, ARCADIA (1993); THE INVENTION OF LOVE (1997); and the screenplay SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998), go on to illustrate that growth luxuriously and rewardingly.

The character of Henry in THE REAL THING is autobiographical to a large degree. The role of Annie, in the original production, was taken by Felicity Kendall with whom Mr Stoppard developed a relationship, both of them at the time married to someone else. Says Simon Phillips, the Director of this Sydney Theatre Company (STC) production:

THE REAL THING marked a turning point – a shift from using other people’s ideas meretriciously to expressing his own ideas, and more importantly feelings, equally eloquently.

Lots of things are thrown into the disquisition of the playwriting in THE REAL THING, that keeps us engaged, but at the core of the experience we grapple with the puzzlement of what is love? and how do we know when the love we feel is the real thing? We learn that it is when experienced as ecstasy and also as despair and, yet, manages to sustain our partnership through the thickness of it as well as the thins of it.

We have seen this play on the Sydney stage many times before this version in The Drama Theatre. It still has its charms and can still hold the audience in its palm, although in this production it occasionally reveals its age and ‘creaks’, forcing us to be patient with some of its observations and theatrical tricks of structure. The play feels long, though it isn’t, merely two and a half hours, including an interval. That feeling of length is a signal that something is not quite working, don’t you think? It takes so long to get to the end – it seems to end many times. On my night there was an anticipatory exit applause given, despite the fact there was more – embarrassingly – to be said and done. We had to re-gather ourselves, those of us who had thought that exiting was the next move of the night! The amount of time built around the MacGuffin of the ‘ghosting’ by Henry of a play written by a working class Brodie, an imprisoned soldier, does, ultimately, stretch the limits of our attentiveness. And when Brodie finally does appear – metamorphose – none of us care too much, for we had already indicated that we felt it was time to go home, thanks very much.

Mr Phillips remarks that

If Stoppard sets challenges to your attention span, he sets equal challenges to his actors, demanding a mental acuity and an effortless command of high-tensile language.

This company of actors appear to have the “mental acuity” but not quite the “effortless command” of the high-tensile language. Both Johnny Carr (Henry) and Geraldine Hakewill (Annie) manage the commands of the technique Mr Stoppard requires, but, only just. Their effort to deliver is a visible strain and does not give us much luxury of confidence that they will get through. Other actors that we have seen in this play in other productions over the years, were, generally, much more experienced than these two young thespians. They give creditable performances but not absolutely confident ones – we cheer them on but we should not ought to have that responsibility. We are pleased that they have managed well enough.

The best performance comes from Julia Robertson, in a small supporting role as Debbie, and, happily, when Dorje Swallow does finally arrive as Brodie, his suavity and control of the scene has us wishing he had arrived earlier and had had more to do. Rachel Gordon (Charlotte) is adequate, so is Shiv Palekar (Billy), while Charlie Garner does not seem to be able to inhabit Max, the actor – the other betrayed lover – and who rather presents an oddly caricatured vocalisation as a substitute for a living, breathing man – the idea of this ‘stagey’ Englishman called Max (Maximilian, I suppose) as conceived by a satiric Australian comedian.

It is a very extravagant and contemporary design by Charles Davis, and we do get to watch it change ‘shape’ regularly during the performance, accompanied by James Brown’s Sound Design and Composition, lit sumptuously by Nick Schlieper. Mr Phillips as a deft hand Directing this work but not the energy to lift the actors and production into an effortless brilliance, which is what THE REAL THING necessarily demands and we expect.

I like Stoppard’s work a great deal. I am a fan. I flew to New York to see his trilogy of plays, THE COAST OF UTOPIA, dealing with the Russian philosophers and their entwined personal lives that would set the foundations for the Russian Revolutions in 2002, guessing that we would never see them in Sydney. Three plays. Nine hours long. A company of 30, or more actors. Never ever, in Sydney. I had a moderately fair night with this version of THE REAL THING.(Come to think of it, that maybe my usual remembrance of this play). I wish that the STC had cast the work with more experienced players, or, better still, were more courageous with presenting one of his other works that have never been seen in Sydney. There are many, many of them.