The Real Thing
EMMA ROBERTS knows all about anger. And, finally, she’s been able to put that knowledge to good use. Her neighbours can sleep easy for once.
Corpus Playroom, 25th–29th October, 7pm, £4-6
Dir. Tom Powell and Jack Gamble
Anger. From Wall Street to Damascus to Tottenham, the world seems pretty full of it right now. Young people, in particular, are angry. Apparently they have been since 1956, but I couldn’t tell you about that. One of the safest places to see young anger depicted is onstage at the Royal Court Theatre; nestled in a cushy Sloane Square auditorium, where the baseball bats are only props.
At any time of the year, you are guaranteed to be able to catch one young writer’s angry debut; it will probably feature angry characters called Bex and Gary, who will angrily shout at one another about how angry they are, before simulating angry sex and inexorably meeting angry baseball-bat related deaths.
Photographs courtesy of the production
Bex and Gary are the antithesis of Stoppard’s carefully crafted Henry and Annie, the central couple in The Real Thing. After a whirlwind adulterous romance leads them to break up with their respective partners, they find themselves married to each other, satisfied, and asking themselves, is this all there is? Both characters seem anxious to hold onto a youthful, passionate, impractical sensibility.
For Annie, her tireless campaign to vindicate a young revolutionary, as well as her fascination with a youthful co-worker, are her methods of escapism. For Henry, his abrupt transformation into a jealous lover is his attempt to feel something less constant and more dangerous. They both want to be angry. But they traded their anger in long ago for cautious hope and quiet despair.
Successful, middle-aged and presumably a bit bored at the time of writing The Real Thing, Stoppard has channelled his own personal and philosophical frustrations through the part of Henry. Like Stoppard, the protagonist is a playwright, and also like Stoppard, he is a bit of a proud intellectual.
Using a young amateur cast to portray such middle-aged, middle-class ennui could have created some serious problems. And though at times it is difficult to suspend disbelief and accept the lashings of talcum powder in an actor’s hair as real greys, this cast did an impressive job in maintaining the illusion of an adult world onstage.
Robin Morton, who played the part of Henry, has a youthful countenance that makes it impossible for him to look truly world-weary. However, I found this ended up effectively emphasising his character’s occasional childlike wonder; for despite the natty cynicism Henry depicts in his plays, he is in ‘real life’ an unapologetic romantic (“I love… love”) and relentless in his search for what is real and meaningful.
Characteristically, the play is rich in metatheatrical devices, cultural allusion and philosophical dilemma. And as a result it is going to be more for some than others. I felt that overall the complexity of the narrative structure was made quite clear to the audience, despite limited set changes.
And although at times some of Henry’s ontological soliloquies did start to feel just a little bit didactic, they were counteracted with wry, accessible and humorous dialogue. It is difficult to keep the pace up in a play that slowly simmers at a near-constant level, never quite boiling over, and sometimes the cast let the energy dip.
Laura Profumo’s brief turn as Henry’s rebel daughter Debbie gave the drama a well-needed injection of charisma. Jenny Scudamore’s seductive, elusive Annie was immensely watchable, as was Stephen Birmingham as the hand-wringing traditionalist Max. Little directorial details, such as Henry’s subtle fingering of his wedding ring during moments of distress, were indicative of how much thought had gone into the production. The play boasted a highly polished technical design, best demonstrated in the use of sound as an effective way of moving into the next scene.
We do need plays about anger in our theatrical climate. But sometimes it can be just as effective to stage a play about the internalisation of anger, of raw feeling, and what to do when you find the fire in your belly extinguished; or at least reduced to embers. The Real Thing was a good example of this.