Preview: The Real Thing

Director Kate Saxon tells Andy Murray why a new version of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing remains a timeless piece

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Tom Stoppard’s reputation as one of the country’s pre-eminent playwrights is beyond debate, particularly in light of the enormous success of his 2006 play Rock ‘n’ Roll. With no sign of new work from Stoppard surfacing just yet, English Touring Theatre is reviving one of his best loved, if least typical, earlier plays.

The Real Thing was first staged in 1982, and it evokes the political rumbles of its time – as well as far more personal kinds of upheaval. Some observers have labelled it as semi-autobiographical, featuring as it does a main character, Henry, who is an acclaimed playwright with a profound love of language, struggling to come up with fresh work.

Stoppard depicts how Henry’s latest work involves his actor wife Charlotte taking a leading role in his examination of modern love and marriage. Consequently, their marriage falls apart and the worlds of fiction and reality become so completely intertwined they’re almost indivisible.

“This is one of Stoppard’s most accessible pieces of work and one of his best, I think,” claims Kate Saxon, director of the new production.

“It’s very witty. It’s so beautifully crafted – there’s not a word out of place – and yet for all of the craftsmanship you really feel you connect to the characters and their emotional journey as well.”

It’s these themes of love, fidelity and deceit that mark the play out as something slightly unusual within Stoppard’s wider oeuvre.

“It made a bit of a splash at the time it was first staged, because people said it was the first play he’d written about the heart, not the brain. Stoppard said it would be the only one he would write about love, because love’s a very personal subject and not one that he necessarily found easy to write about.”

There’s also a generous helping of hard-edged early 1980s politics in the play, expressed through assorted main characters, but Saxon feels that its relevance hasn’t waned at all over the past 30 years.

“There are things that spring to mind about the play in relation to the riots of last summer, for instance. There are many political issues today that resonate with some of the things that he was writing about then: matters of personal responsibility and commitment and what inspires us to get involved in a certain political arena or certain moral standpoint. It’s a play about people searching for ‘the real thing’, be that in love, morals or political loyalties.”

As part of her preparation, Saxon met Stoppard for dinner to discuss the finer points of the play. “It’s just nice to be able to check in on those questions. Without asking the playwright, you don’t know. You can make the best guess at it in rehearsals, but it’s just nice to have had the opportunity to have asked Tom a few specific things. It was fantastic that he gave me the time to do that, and to be able to ask if there are any particular pitfalls that he thinks I should be looking to avoid.”

In the course of their discussion, Saxon discovered that Stoppard himself feels that The Real Thing is something rather special too. “He said that personally, as a playwright, he doesn’t really like to get too engaged with the back catalogue, as it were, for fear that it will stop him writing the next one. But he’s very pleased at the success the play’s had, and he says he’s really happy to see it revived.”

The Real Thing, 4-26 May, West Yorkshire Playhouse

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