The Real Thing, by Tom Stoppard | Directed by Alice Livingstone

New Theatre | New Theatre, Newtown, Sydney | Until 7 November

“No, you want to give it time - Time to go wrong, change, spoil. Then you’ll know it wasn’t the real thing.”

Is love a fiction or is it The Real Thing? What is real and what is not? Where does our authenticity begin and where does it end? Does life imitate art or does art imitate life?

With these timeless explorations, the years between 1982 and today fall away so that The Real Thing is as engrossing today as it was more than 30 years ago. In this play, Tom Stoppard created another literary artefact of intellectual ducking and weaving but also ventured successfully into the realm of emotional ebb and flow.

“I don’t want anyone else but sometimes, surprisingly, there’s someone, not the prettiest or the most available, but you know that in another life it would be her.”

It follows the relationship matrix of Henry (Christopher Timkinson), an early-middle-aged literary playwright. Over the course of a number of years, Henry cheats on Charlotte (Emily Weare) with Annie (Ainslie McGlynn), the wife of Max (Peter Eyers). Charlotte and Max star in Henry’s latest play, which is, of course, all about infidelity and a marriage breakup. To raise the emotional stakes there is Debbie (Charlotte Hazzard), Henry’s teenaged daughter.

The Real Thing may in part have been Stoppard’s reaction against accusations his plays were mere intellectual games with no heart, but it’s certainly no simple soap opera. During the tangling of this web, Henry and his crew of relationship misfits opine on such meaty musings as whether political acts are always based on political convictions …

“There is, I suppose, a world of objects which have a certain form, like this coffee mug. I turn it, and it has no handle, I tilt it, and it has no cavity. But there is something real here which is always a mug with a handle. I suppose. But politics, justice, patriotism – they aren’t even like coffee mugs. There’s nothing real there separate from our perception of them.”

… the case for ghostwriting …

“What we’re trying to do is to write [perfectly sprung] cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might … travel …”

… and the cultural elitism of ‘good writing’ …

“I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you might nudge the world a little or make a poem that children will speak for you when you are dead.”

One of the most powerful devices Stoppard uses to explore the narrow chasm between life and art is that of the play within a play. Henry’s first wife is ironically cast as the adulterer in his play, The House of Cards, alongside the in-real-life-cuckolded Max. His second wife, Annie, takes up the political cause of a soldier arrested for an anti-war protest and stages a play about his situation. Her young co-star, who is playing the soldier, pursues her. The roles of co-star and soldier are played by a single actor, further blurring the lines between reality and art.

“Loving and being loved is unliterary. It’s happiness expressed in banality and lust.”

Where Dylan Thomas wrote linguistic symphonies, Stoppard writes a linguistic Bohemian Rhapsody - as deliciously crafted as the higher art form but more readily accessible. Director Alice Livingstone and her orchestra of actors play the notes with verve and vigour.

“It’s those little touches that lift adultery out of the moral arena and make it a matter of style.”

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