The Real Thing is about love – real love, lasting love, commitment versus a daily bargain, different lovers and taking the love that you need. Its a strong Tom Stoppard play, written in the early 1980s when he was well established as a playwright. The era is irrelevant as it is a modern play that stands just as strongly today.

Stoppard writes plays that are witty and clever – generally, they are plays within plays. This one is more literal in that conceit, a play within a play. The Real Thing begins with two actors, Max (Charlie Garber) who is married to an actor and the other, Charlotte (Rachel Gordon) who is married to a playwright. In reality, the playwright starts an affair with an actor (who is married to one starring in his current play). 

It quickly moves into a drama about the relationships of one couple, then another, then the couples together. The characters are articulate with well-constructed lines and relevant points of view. They all have lines that are funny and clever in part, selfish and silly at other times but are ultimately focused on their own realities. Relationships are about the interplay with those involved, their viewpoints, their realities and then the resulting composite.

As a playwright, Henrys character has to be viewed with some sense of the autobiographical – and his thoughts, feelings, admissions of inadequacy and confusion may be attributable to Stoppard himself.

But, it is the mark of an artist at the top of his game to ensure all his characters are drawn well. This is not about a playwright and the roughly drawn characters who surround him, but instead, it is fully fleshed characters with points of view that Stoppard has imagined.

Annie, played by Geraldine Hakewill (most recently seen as Peregrine Fisher, the star of Ms Fishers Modern Mysteries), is a standout in a solid cast. She is introduced as Henrys lover in the second scene and begins to call the shots early in the piece. She is seen as a wife, then lover, then she comes into her own as it becomes clear she is following her own path. Its an interesting development that is subtle and thoughtful. 

Johnny Carr as Henry is the character at the centre of the action. He plays the autobiographical role of a playwright struggling with his craft while living his life, with all its complications, naturally and with fine nuance. His lines are superb and in one memorable scene Henry says, ” I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are.”

We start the play with the playwright cleverly accusing his wife of infidelity. He starts the conversation with a series of odd questions designed to elicit a confession but instead of the confession he has antagonised her, and his wife feels that it is she who has been wronged. The next scene turns to reality as he has unintentionally invited over his lovers husband.

Several scenes of awkwardness resolve and we are re-familiarised with the actors who are now assuming real roles.

As an aside, Annie is fighting to save cause célèbre Brodie, who has been jailed for attacking police in a demonstration. Annie believes that Brodie has been unfairly detained and it is only through gradual reveals that we start to understand the reality behind their relationship and her true reason for her support.

Each scene examines what is real – whether it be promises, commitments, relationships, people. Stoppard is able to do this without condescension or banality. His lines may be sharper than reality, but the emotion is captured. 

Director Simon Phillips, who also directed the Sydney Theatre Companys last Stoppard play, Rosencrantz and Guidlenstern are Dead (2013) says The Real Thing marked a running point for Stoppard: a shift from using other peoples ideas meretriciously to expressing his own ideas, and more importantly feelings, equally eloquently. He also cites this as a play where Stoppard shifted the way he wrote for women. The Real Thing has three highly articulate female protagonists able to challenge Henrys point of view. In todays environment, its telling that these resonates so clearly.  

A night of sophisticated conversation and action awaits with this Tom Stoppard classic – substance versus style and what lies in between.

When: till Saturday 26 October 2019
Where: Sydney Theatre Company, The Wharf, Pier 4 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay NSW 2000
Cost: from $103
For more information: The Real Thing

Feature image: The Real Thing Review. Image supplied by Sydney Theatre Company.