Henry says he “can’t write love”. But he can write about adultery. While his actress wife plays the unfaithful lead in his latest play, Henry is busy committing adultery in real life. But true love – the real thing – remains, in his mind, too clichéd to be written down.
Tom Stoppard’s 1982 play has not dated. Bar an old-fashioned backpack and the presence of LPs rather than CDs, director Anna Mackmin’s revival at the Old Vic shows that issues of love and infidelity are timeless, much like the minimalist white set upon which the action is played out.
Toby Stephens’s Henry is an intellectual snob. An acclaimed playwright, he uses wordplay like a weapon with which to quickly dispatch those less intellectual than himself. But it is also a defence mechanism which he uses to shield himself from deep feeling. Love, jealousy and pain are clichés that he does not indulge and seems not to feel.
The emotional, empathetic Annie (Hattie Morahan) can’t understand this. Henry has left the antagonistic domestic set-up he shared with wife Charlotte (Fenella Woolgar) for the supposed domestic bliss offered by Annie, who in turn has left her husband Max (Barnaby Kay). But while she fawns over her new lover with the girlish delight of true love, Henry, though he says he loves her, expresses little in the way of emotional passion for her.
When Annie becomes passionate about helping a soldier convicted of a crime, Henry, disparaging of her cause and her feelings, lets Annie slip into an infidelity of her own and their life starts to mimic his play. Ironically it is only then that he seems to finally feel something: the pain of betrayal.
With the use of sliding panels, Lez Brotherston’s set effectively facilitates Stoppard’s cleverly constructed play, which, at the beginning, switches between Henry’s play and real life with such cunning as to catch out any audience members snoozing at the back. Well thought-out use of props also helps to blur the line between reality and drama. In Henry’s play the cheating wife brings back apt tokens of her supposed trips abroad, even though she forgot her passport. In real life Annie brings Henry a tartan scarf from her trip to Glasgow.
Well chosen musical excerpts – each crooning about love – illustrate the action, ending with the perfectly appropriate I’m A Believer, which seems to say everything Henry wanted to write about love but couldn’t.