The Real Thing. Thing thing is…

The Ottawa XPress // May 18, 2006

Stoppard stops short of anything real or meaningful

As a play about marital infidelity, Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing isn’t doing much. As a writer’s drama discussing a writer’s loyalty to the craft, this play impresses a little more.

But it fails to unite the two main themes – infidelity and artist vocation – in any interesting way. It makes no delicious point worth debating over cheesecake.

Stoppard is indeed a prolific playwright and scriptwriter. Who didn’t love Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead or the touching film Empire of the Sun? But when it comes to The Real Thing, Stoppard is all over the place and nowhere at all.

Brought to Ottawa by Toronto’s Soulpepper company and directed by Diana Leblanc, the play tells the story of the unfaithful Annie (Megan Follows) who cheats on her husband Max with a guy named Henry who is married to Charlotte who is also fooling around.

Talk about Fleetwood Mac.

We follow the middle-aged boring British folks through the adultery, and through the plays about adultery they’re rehearsing within the play. This adds a few neat layers to the three-hour production. But while most reviews point out weaknesses like the arbitrary jumps, gaps and irrelevance to real life, they’re still calling it a hit.

It’s a mess. The portrait of Annie, serial adulterer, played by Follows ain’t no thing like the real thing and it is not because I can’t see beyond the virginal Anne of Green Gables. I’m not gagging to see adultery with all its claws and slit wrists, Hilton Hotel bills and Mediterranean get-away sunsets.

Or maybe I am.

That would certainly reveal the realistic repercussions of cheating on one’s partner, which this play glosses over grossly. Maybe the dull treatment is designed to shine the focus upon the Justice for Brodie Committee storyline, which the actors execute cleverly through hilarious repartee and flawless acting.

This storyline is about the young Brodie, jailed for attacking a policeman at an anti-missile demonstration. He writes a play that Annie wants to produce because she believes in its meat and guts. In other words, Brodie symbolizes raw and energetic creation next to Stoppard’s mature critic, Henry, who represents perfunctory writing and upper-crust Brit lit.

Henry draws the difference between his own talent and Brodie’s with an effective analogy an audience can sink their teeth into. The difference, Henry says, is that great writing is like a slick cricket bat made of several kinds of wood (think: words) crafted together expertly to create a useful tool. By contrast, Brodie’s prose is just a rolled-up script that pretends to be a strong bat.

Just as I was getting ready for an explosive examination of punk ideologues and anti-establishment expression versus mainstream, pompous drivel, the show was over…

– Sylvie Hill