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Review: The Real Thing at The Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

By James Ong

Hosted in the beautiful and dignified Drama Theatre at the Sydney Opera House, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, is a complex show that simmered along with some sharp staging that was unfortunately hindered by a lacking script. Despite some troublesome content, it is clear to see the talent of the STC-assembled cast and crew that brought this piece to life.

The play follows Henry (Johnny Carr), a playwright of equal ego to Stoppard, burdened with unsurpassable intelligence and wit as he navigates the pains and joys of his tumultuous love life. As the main pillar of the play, Carr portrays Henry with a precise and sneaking intelligence as he, and the characters around him, revel in the meanness they can inflict. Our not-so-relatable hero begins an affair with the equally smart, but much more pleasant Annie (Geraldine Hakewill), for whom he soon leaves his wife. As the play progresses, cracks in their relationship present themselves. Director Simon Phillips understands the playwright’s penchant for condescension, and channels this superiority complex through this main character.

There is a strange paradox in this production. The Real Thing is seen as a turning point for Stoppard in terms of writing fully fleshed out women and dealing with more modern ideas, however the script is filled with dated jokes and casually sexist and racist one-liners. The female representation is also nowhere near as progressive as Phillips would have you believe in his Director’s note. In fact, this extends further in the program to the Synopsis, which describes Henry as “an English playwright of unbeatable intellectual prowess. A master of off-the-cuff soliloquising and elaborate, irrefutable retorts”. The other main character, Annie, is given an equally grandiose description as… “an actress”. It seems as though the best intentions of the cast and crew to represent a more modern mindset, can’t quite escape the inherent regressive DNA of the source material. The three female characters in this play are all defined by who they are sleeping with, functioning only to illustrate the different ways female sexuality threatens and hurts the ego of their male counterparts. Annie breaks hearts as she deceives the men around her with a pattern of infidelity. Henry’s first wife Charlotte (Rachel Gordon) is defined by her polyamorous lifestyle and serves to highlight her ex-husband’s inadequacy. Finally, Henry’s daughter Debbie (Julia Robertson) uses her one scene to recount her love affair with her much older teacher – an example of Henry’s inability to raise a child to his dated, modest standards. Robertson resonated with me as the most engaging and modern actor in the piece as she cut down the different expectations that her father threw at her. That being said, she is still yet another representation of sexual freedom that frightens and pains her father. This structure would be an interesting point of contrast if Henry was portrayed as a character unworthy of our sympathy, but the exact opposite is true; his humour and emotional contemplation ask us to align ourselves with this rigid and dated man.

At odds with the troublesome content of the play is the tasteful and sleek design. The team of Charles Davis (Designer), Nick Schlieper (Lighting) and James Brown (Sound and Composition) assembled a delicate, stylish environment for Stoppard’s rambling barbs to emanate from. Several homes are realised on a rotating stage that (combined with smooth lighting and music) transition with grace. It’s clear the team here is made up of experienced and equipped professionals. Though the actors never quite use the stage to its full potential, heavily preferring the left two-thirds, the space was quite pleasing nonetheless. The soundtrack selected, though eclectic, helped keep the attention of the audience focused throughout the almost two and a half hour run time. Henry and Annie make repeated reference to their respective preferences for 1950 pop/rock and operatic opuses, which are then used to elevate their characters in certain scenes that threaten to become drab. That being said, the transitions often used music of the 70s and 80s, which though thematically related, seem oddly anachronistic for a play that is never given a set time period.

The Real Thing has some hard to ignore parallels with Tom Stoppard’s own life, making the piece almost autobiographical in nature. The title refers to contrast between the ideal and the real, whether that be between Henry’s script and his true personal world or the dreams he has for his romance with Annie and the crushing reality that they may not be the right fit. It would seem to extend to the play as whole. The Real Thing is quite often heralded as both Stoppard's most authentically written and one of his most popular works. Though I may disagree with the content and messaging of the play itself, there is strong execution from a talented cast and an outstanding design team that drew some positives out of this vexing source material.

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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