March 27, 2009
Stymied by Stoppard
Let me start by saying that I appreciate a good play on words as much as the next person, if not more. A pleasant pun, a quotable quip or a wicked wisecrack can certainly add value to any production. And if there's one playwright (other than the Bard himself) who can master a turn of the tongue, it's Tom Stoppard.
But sometimes, you just want the real thing – no sarcasm, no double-entendres, no oblique references – just a play you can understand, from beginning to end, particularly at the end of a long day.
Sadly, this was not the case with the ironically named The Real Thing, and though the superb acting carried this play through for most of its almost two and a half hours, it wasn't enough to carry the audience through a lot of the mind-bending dialogue (and monologues); not to mention that the whole production could have used a fairly hefty cut of about 20 minutes.
Add to that the convoluted plot that has plays within a play, and several times I wished I had studied Stoppard at some point in university or at least had a Coles Notes version with me.
Having said all that, if I were to approach this as I would a Shakespearian drama, my reaction would be quite different and definitely more forgiving. After all, most audience members don't understand about 80 per cent of the dialogue in any given Shakespeare play, but with the help of a plot summary in the program, combined with good acting and imaginative costumes, the lack of total comprehension becomes something acceptable, even a source of humor at intermission.
In that vein, I can forget about all the befuddling wordplay for a moment and concentrate on what I did like – Jennifer Lines and Vincent Gale. And on those two names alone, I would recommend this play. People who are theatre regulars will recognize these names from numerous productions in Vancouver, including Bard on the Beach (in which Lines has participated for 10 seasons) and Waiting for Godot (which included a masterful performance by Gale). And while the two characters that they play in Real Thing are definitely not ones I felt connected to, their performances are stellar.
In Real Thing, Lines plays Annie, an actress who leaves her husband Max in order to marry Henry (Gale) – a verbose, self-important, righteous playwright who has an easier time writing plays about people who cheat than about people who love each other.
The two get into heated discussions around one Private Brodie, a Scottish soldier who gets arrested at a missile protest and is thrown in jail. Annie devotes much of her time over two years going to rallies trying to get him released, and then later implores Henry to rewrite a hideously bad autobiographical play that Brodie wrote in jail.
Henry can't understand why Annie spends so much time with someone he considers to be nothing but a lower-class prole who can't string three words together in a sentence. But Annie is drawn to the idealism and courage she sees in Brodie, and she gets fed up with Henry's constant lecturing about what makes good writing. At this point, about midway through the second act, I was also getting fed up with Henry's blathering and couldn't wait for Annie to leave him either for Brodie or for a co-actor she's been having an affair with. I can't understand how she can put up with Henry's snobbishness for so long.
But, as Stoppard says (through Henry's dialogue), "It's no trick loving someone at their best." And therein lies the true lesson of the play – real love can survive anything; in fact, it's the only thing that ever does. And that's a simple theme to remember, even if the convoluted dialogue doesn't always make sense.
The Real Thing runs at the Arts Club Granville Stage until April 4. It is directed by Jewish community member Michael Shamata and also stars Simon Bradbury, Jennifer Clement, Charlie Gallant and Julie McIsaac. Call 604-687-1644 or visit www.artsclub.com for tickets.
Baila Lazarus is a freelance writer, painter and photographer. Her work can be seen at www.orchiddesigns.net.