Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Sep 9 – Oct 26, 2019
Playwright: Tom Stoppard
Director: Simon Phillips
Cast: Johnny Carr, Charlie Garber, Rachel Gordon, Geraldine Hakewill, Shiv Palekar, Julia Robertson, Dorje Swallow
Images by Lisa Tomasetti
Henry has an excellent relationship with words and philosophy, which is just as well, being a successful playwright much like his creator Tom Stoppard. In The Real Thing however, we discover that his cerebral talents do not extend to matters of the heart. It is that very human conundrum we deal with in Stoppard’s extraordinarily rigorous piece of writing, that it is one thing to be able to know so deeply all that can be intellectualised, yet be unable to have much control over how one loves. People in the play are smart. Their understanding of the world is astute and penetrating, and their talk is very highbrow, but when we observe the way their feelings are being enacted, it seems there is no escaping the fools that we ultimately are.
Couples in The Real Thing wrestle with issues of fidelity. They cheat, they are suspicious, they are apologetic, and they fail repeatedly. They struggle with the need to be faithful, often engaging in discussions about the meaning of love and monogamy, but what they say have little bearing on how they feel. A constant discord exists between logic and emotions, prompting us to wonder if there can be more than one real thing in the human experience, if what we think and how we act are so often not in concurrence.
Director Simon Phillips brings remarkable clarity not only to these immediate themes, but also to the many tangential musings that make The Real Thing memorable. The density of the text is translated on stage by Phillips into a luxuriant tapestry of inspiring observations emerging from Stoppard’s brilliant mind. In the role of Henry is the sensational Johnny Carr, bringing a startling truthfulness to dialogue that could very easily be turned, under the wrong hands, highfalutin and empty. The actor’s presence and timing have us captivated, as we find ourselves enraptured, deeply invested in the many meaningful discussions that provide the foundation, for an admittedly bourgeois narrative. Geraldine Hakewill too, is engaging as Annie, a strong counterpoint in the story, effortlessly convincing with the complexity she portrays, whether playing subject or object in this tale about affection and attraction.
Production designer Charles Davis delivers a spectacular set, wonderfully imagined for the revolve stage, to facilitate poetic parallels between words and visions. His costumes are quiet but effective, able to bridge the time disparity inherent in reviving a 37-year-old work. Lights by Nick Schlieper are correspondingly sophisticated, always pleasing with the imagery he manufactures, and exacting in the way he shifts our impulsive responses from scene to scene.
It is likely that one can arrive at the conclusion that realities are multitudinous, yet there is something in our nature that cannot resist the idea that there could be a singular essence to things, that there is a fundamental truth in how we regard the world. It is as though a key exists, that life is only ever experienced as a sort of mystery that requires solving. Henry’s racing thoughts are incessant, and luckily for us, always beautifully articulated, yet we only ever see him carry on like a fool for love, as though knowledge can never live up to its promise of having the answer to everything.