Confession time...I was sitting in the theatre, flipping through the pages in the programme when it dawned on me, I had never seen a Tom Stoppard play. It feels as if I had, his name has been synonymous with classic British theatre for decades and I have seen him around town numerous times but I never saw any of his plays, revival or not. And I don't have an answer for how that has come to pass.
Here we have a real classic. Premiering in the West End in 1982 , The Real Thing went on to win the Evening Standard Award for Best Play and subsequently premiered on Broadway in 1984 and won the Tony for Best Play. It would be easy to assume that subsequent productions would have to deal with either keeping in set within the era it was written or make some attempt to update it to reach a more contemporary audience, however what's so wonderful about this play is that it doesn't need either treatment to be relevant or 'contemporary'.
The Real Thing engages the audience from the start, giving us two scenarios which keep us wondering which is the real thing? Back to back we have two scenes with one common element - the same woman is in each and we're left wondering for a while how the two fit - was one or both just a scene from a play written by Toby Stephens (A Dolls House at the Donmar, The Country Wife in the West End, TV- The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Cambridge Spies, Film - Die Another Day) playwright character Henry?
Characters collide, home truths are dished out and once the dust settles the play gets a more conventional tone, for a while. We are left with two of the originating characters - Henry and his other half as they navigate through their relationship. Considering how much of the play is essentially a two hander it is never less and captivating. Discussions about what is real ring true, whether it be the truth in relationships and what one needs from their partner or (what I found to be the pinnacle of the night) a conversation about what makes a good play. The basis of that conversation was a discussion about a play by a non playwright, one character thinks its a bad play and the other feels it says what it needs to say which gives it validity. It's that age old argument questioning the concept that there is good and bad art - some think it's simply a matter of taste and effectiveness and others feel its more prescribed than that.
In The Real Thing Stoppard uses a cricket bat to get his point across, explaining the craftsmanship that goes into making a cricket bat separates good bats from bad. A wonderfully crafted bat will elevate a players game where as a bad bat will bring it down. It's a wonderful argument and makes complete sense in context although, to be fair, making a cricket bat does not entirely equal full on creativity but then we could ask if Henry's plays are also indeed, the real thing.
I could run on and on with this 'real thing' concept and I think that's why the play works so well, It's tightly constructed and everything is there for a reason, feeding into the central concepts and thought processes.
Down to specifics - Toby Stephens is very effective as Henry. He's a middle class snob who, I believe, and based on my big ears during the interval, you could sympathise with or simply detest. It's a fine line he has to walk and he does veer a little too much on the negative side for me but it's necessary for the character I guess. As the two women in his life - Fenella Woolgar (Time and the Conways at the National, Motortown at the Royal Court, films Vera Drake, Bright Young Things and Stage Beauty) captures the slightly cynical and funny Charlotte while Hattie Morahan (The City at the Royal Court, Time and the Conways,... some trace of her, Three More Sleepless Nights - all National Theatre) took a while to capture my attention. There was a wonderful moment when I realised that her character had been influenced by Henry through a subtle switch in a conversation. Very subtle and difficult to do so hats off to her. Barnaby Kay (Closer, Man of Mode at the National Theatre, The Herbal Bed in the West End, Dying For It at the Almeida and A Streetcar Named Desire as the Donmar) as Max was wonderful. He brought a very playful, open quality to a character that only appears in the first few scenes of the first act.
The only downside for me was the introduction of additional characters in the final third of the play. I understand why they were there, I felt they were necessary for the development of other characters but a few of them were directly out of stage school and although fine, their lack of experience shown.
I'm no director but I would imagine that directing this play would be a tricky affair. It balances and counter balances so many ideas and character flaws that allowing the production to tip too much in one direction could throw the whole thing off. It's the careful point / counterpoint effect that is believably created and entirely entertaining that makes this a must see, especially if you consider yourself a 'thoughtful' person. I can't imagine anyone looking for a heavy duty storyline full of mystery and suspense to really hook into the magic of Stoppard's writing. If in doubt, give it a try, you might be pleasantly surprised.
Speaking of surprises...as I was writing this I realised that I had seen a Tom Stoppard play - Rock and Roll in the West End. And surprisingly, I didn't like it. I felt it relied too much on intellectual banter along with political and cultural references that to a point eluded me.That's not the case with The Real Thing. All the preparation you will need is your mind.
The Real Thing
with Tom Austen, Louise Calf, Barnaby Kay, Hattie Morahan, Toby Stephens, Fenella Woolgar, Jordan Young
Director: Anna Mackmin
Designer: Lez Brotherston
The Real Thing (Old Vic 19/4/10) 18 May 2010
Polar Bears is the second new play of the current Donmar season, the first being the phenomenally successful Red by John Logan which recently transferred to Broadway. I'm not sure where to start with this one. Thinking about it there really isn't much to say, which is sort of how I felt about Polar Bears. Again, drawn by the promise of another production directed by Jamie Lloyd I expected to at least be entertained, and I was, somewhat, but overall it was a slight evening.
I've never read The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night, the bestselling novel by Mark Haddon who has written this play. All I know it was a huge hit and as a result didn't really think twice about his first play premiering at The Donmar as all the productions are of such a high quality. I figured that there must have been something about Mark Haddon's writing that cried out 'playwright', why else would the Donmar take such a risk as they aren't known for championing new work? I have a suspicion but let's move on to the actual production.
For quite a while I didn't know what the play was about. I was intrigued, that's for sure. With a title like Polar Bears it could have gone into any direction really, but I finally pinned it down to a story about a woman with bi-polar disorder. Nifty. I like how he pulls that together. Then, from what I could tell the structure of the play was unconventional and seemed to be splitting audiences. I personally enjoy unconventional plotting and structure so I was up for the challenge.
The story itself is pretty straightforward - a bi-polar woman meets and falls in love with a philosopher, much to the dislike of the woman's mother and brother. I say, dislike because they aren't so much against the union as suspicious that the woman's disorder could prove too much for the man. So, how do we make this story more interesting? You start at the end. I'm all for that as it forms a basis to really explore the various characters needs and desires. Unfortunately, that didn't come to pass. We did get the ending first (I am now giving you plenty of notice by typing a very long sentence to alert you that a major spoiler is on it's way. Even though it's the first thing that happens in the play I still think that many would prefer to not know. - *SPOILER* the man confesses to the brother that he has killed the woman in what could be thought of as a crime of passion by pushing her down the basement stairs - *END OF SPOILER*).
What makes this story more complicated structurally is that it doesn't then go back to the beginning and trace the events that lead up to the ending, it replays events out of sequence. Normally I would have found this intriguing but in this case it comes off as a device for the sake of having a device. With such a non sequential structure I expect there to be a reason for presenting scenes out of order such as illuminating issues and actions in a different way. To know the outcome of actions prior to the inciting events should give those initial events a different spin. Not so with Polar Bears. I didn't really see any reason for the structure other than possibly making the story more interesting.
Actually, it's sad to say, and I don't like having to say it, but, one of the main problems was the central performance of the woman Kay, by Jodhi May (Blackbird - West End, The Talking Cure - National Theatre, Platanov - Almeida). Everything hinges on her actions. There wasn't any real extreme in her actions and her performance was just that, a performance, to the point that I could see why her man did what he did, and not for the obvious reason. There was probably a thought that by not playing th extremes we, like the the characters in the play, would wonder if the character really had a disorder. It didn't work.
The mother, Margaret played by Celia Imrie (Rivals - Southwark Playhouse, Acorn Antiques - West End, Film - Bridget Jones; Star Wars, TV - Cranford) is very clear in her warnings to the husband John played by Richard Coyle (After Miss Julie, Proof - both Donmar, The Lover and The Collection - West End, The York Realist - West End and TV's Coupling) that Kay's emotional swings are very difficult to handle and is continually challenging him in his insistence that it will be fine. The brother, Sandy played by Paul Hilton (The Wild Duck - Donmar, Riflemind - Trafalgar Studios, On the Third Day - West End, Mourning Becomes Electra - National Theatre) is also sceptical about John's ability to commit to what could be such a volatile relationship. These points are driven home through every scene that includes John with either the mother or the brother.
Theoretically this pressure that John is under is what the audience would be looking out for after knowing how it all ends. None of warnings actually carry any weight because we never experience Kay's extreme mood swings nor do we ever feel any real connection with either side of her personality. Everyone else does their best , with Richard Coyle giving the greatest performance, but without seeing and feeling what all the fuss is about it ends up being empty storytelling.
To be fair, even is the central performance was better I don't think it all would have added up to much. I looked into Mark Haddon's experience (his programme biography is very slight) and it seems the majority of his writings are for young people with only two being for an adult market and this is his first play. Polar Bears feels like a first play and there are a few parts - namely two extended monologues one from Kay and the other from John - that feel very literary, as if someone was reading from a book. The dialogue is handled well but nothing is very illuminating and I felt much of it became very repetitive. There was an odd choice of having Jesus Christ having a conversation with Kay and then having the same actor, still looking like Jesus, also play Kay's ex-boyfriend. This was an obvious deliberate choice which probably has more meaning but I stopped looking, partly because I find using Jesus as an obvious device that I no longer find interesting.
It was all directed very well as to be expected from Jamie Lloyd, and Soutra Gilmour's split level minimalist set really hits the mark but it's a shame that there aren't more interesting ideas and characters to make it a more worth while experience. Which lead me to think, why this play? What was the process for choosing this play to be part of a Donmar season?
The Donmar have produced new plays in the past - John Logan's Red, Frost/Nixon by Peter Morgan and The Cut by Mark Ravenhill immediately come to mind. Up until now the pattern seemed to be producing new plays by selected established playwrights. Polar Bears has changed this. From what I can tell, Mark Haddon has never written a play before so what was this choice to produce his first play at the Donmar all about?
I realise likes and dislikes are a very subjective thing but for some reason my dislike of Polar Bears didn't stop me from wondering about the decision to produce the first play by a mostly children's book writer about an adult with bi-polar disorder on the Donmar stage. I have nothing against children's books writers, it's, I'm sure, a very specific skill but how that skill translates into the ability to write for the stage, especially a world renowned stage, is a topic that interests me.
I'm pretty sure that everyone is aware that show business is indeed that - a business. Of course, the creative aspects of the 'show' part exists, and it would be safe to say that most everyone involved in the 'biz' started out with mostly creativity on the mind. But to survive, to be able to feed that creativity the 'biz' becomes a major part of the game. And it is a game. It's a business, like most businesses, where you have to figure out a way to keep working, and that comes down to marketability, how much money you can make for someone.
I've never, in my mind, equated the theatre world with the world of show business. That has always been the realm of film and television. Why would I? Those involved in producing theatre don't make near the amount of money of those other two industries but there are the odd exceptions, Cats and Phantom of the Opera have made their creators very wealthy but that took years. Those involved in theatre are involved mainly for the love of theatre. You have to be in love because you can make loads more money in other fields, doing the same thing.
Because of this love I want to think that the art comes first, with a keen eye on the finances coming second. Finances are a major part of West End productions, it has to be but it still has that sense of love and passion lurking in the background (there are a few exceptions which I won't go into). Whereas the arts council funded enterprises have less to lose so the quality (the love) tends to be higher. Also with these funded organisations there are usually a team of workers, leading, guiding, suggesting, crafting and creating work of a standard that they feel is worthy to put before an audience. I'll go out on a limb here and say that their ultimate goal is not West End but sold out houses - an indicator not just of financial gain (sometimes) but of audience engagement.
So we have a culture that now bemoans the inability to reach theatre audiences with new writing, but that seems to be shifting a little. I think we are seeing that interesting writing can still draw the audiences and not just on the back of celebrity names. We are slowly building back a stable of creatives that are associated mainly with theatre and their names stand for quality - Mark Rylance, Rupert Goold and Michale Grandage have helped to create new theatre royalty, artists whose association with theatre alone can sell tickets. This is true for venues as well with the The Royal Court and the Donmar really gaining momentum. So, with all this power why would you take a chance on a new play by a new playwright who has only written, from what I can tell, only one play? And not a great one at that?
I think there's something going on behind the scenes that we aren't aware of. Is the money monster rearing it's ugly head in the off west end world? I could be completely wrong but someone seems to have struck a deal somewhere or personal interest has cancelled out common sense. I'm not saying that a first time playwright / successful novelist can't have their first produced but I question the stage on which this happened. Surely someone would have questioned quite a few things about the piece and maybe they did but if so, someone trumped them. Who and why? I think of all the great playwrights who are struggling to be heard and then I see this play that, though not bad and really not good either, get produced on a major stage. I don't want to believe that the deciding factor was the hope that Mark Haddon's name would help sell tickets. That would be a big letdown.
It's all very confusing - I know that the Donmar has an association with American Producer Arielle Tepper Madover (to be inspired - listen to her interview on the Downstage Centre podcast a few years back - she is the founder of the Summer Play Festival in New York. I wish someone would model something similar in London - Podcast is here ) and there are annual residencies at the Donmar from American playwrights associated with the Festival so why not produce one of their plays instead?
I know I shouldn't complain, it has absolutely nothing to do with me but I just hate to see real theatre talent get pushed to the sidelines. Normally I would chalk it up to 'someone took a chance and it didn't work out' but with Polar Bears something smells a bit fishy.