“The Real Thing” Was Really Lyrical, if Frustrating

Last night we saw Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” at the Belfry Theatre. I was frustrated. On the one hand, Stoppard is an elegant, masterful writer. And the cast was terrific. Jennifer Lines (deserves a Wikipedia entry, so I started one for her) was, as usual, luminous.

However, the play is mercilessly long and talky. I put it at more than two and a half hours. And it’s mostly about the well-worn topic of infidelity. Maybe my attention span is shrinking, but I’d rather watch Patrick Marber’s shorter and fiercer “Closer”, which covers much the same territory in about half the time.

And I was baffled by the staging. The design team seemed to toy with my perceptions–is it 1980 or 2006? Why do two upstage doors provide access to corridors which are already open to the stage? And why is the set so austere? And what was with all that naff music? As the elderly patrons around me sang along to pop tunes from the fifties and sixties, I couldn’t help but feel like the design team was pandering to its aging audience.

I figured that it had to do with the play-within-a-play nature of the script, and that director Michael Shamata was just trying to mess with our heads. Still, I found the staging more irritating than engaging. I also have a general bias against art about art. I’ve read enough writers writing about writing, and seen enough plays about the theatre.

That said, here’s an excerpt from the writers on writing camp that’s too great to pass up. Stoppard is a terrific writer, and this is one of several really beautiful passages in “The Real Thing”. From an old-school Lycos page, Henry is wielding his cricket bat, and comparing good writing to a lousy script he’s just read:

HENRY: Shut up and listen. This thing here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It’s for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly…[he clucks his tongue to make the noise]. What we’re trying to do is write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might…travel …[He clucks his tongue again and picks up the script.] Now, what we’ve got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you’ll drop the bat and dance about shouting ‘Ouch!’ with your hands stuck into your armpits. [indicating the cricket bat] This isn’t better because there’s a consipracy by the MCC to keep cudgels out of Lords. It’s better because it’s better.

I can’t wholeheartedly recommend “The Real Thing”, but if you’ve got patience and a love for great writing, you’ll probably enjoy it.

The Belfry’s publicist, Mark Dusseault, is making great use of some social media channels. They’ve got a fairly active Flickr account, and they post video clips to YouTube. Here’s one from “The Real Thing”:

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