On Thursday April 17, 2014, I got the chance to experience Tom Stoppard’s play The Real Thing. Directed by Patrick Cribben, Chesapeake College’s Division of Arts & Sciences presented this production. This play is designed to portray what love is truly like, rather than the fairy-tale Disney stories most people believe it to be. Through the writing of Henry and the whorishness of Annie and Charlotte, it is discovered that love is not as magical and wonderful as often witnessed in movies. Although the play failed miserably at entertaining the young girl I am, for a more mature, relatable audience it certainly would achieve its purpose in bringing forth the truth about love while entertaining the audience in a couple unromantic comedic acts.
Henry writes plays. He is married to Charlotte and together they have a daughter named Debbie. Annie is married to Max. Charlotte and Max are both actors in Henry’s plays; it is believed that Charlotte and Max are having an affair. It is known that Annie and Henry are having an affair. In this web of affairs it is hard to distinguish who truly loves whom and who just enjoys some of the fun they might get out of the relationship. Due to the romantic aspect of Henry and Annie’s affair, instead of just the fun aspect Charlotte has with her several other partners during her marriage with Henry, Charlotte and Henry separate and Henry marries Annie. But Annie is still preoccupied with other men, including her brother, Billy, and the arsonist soldier, Brody, who is currently serving jail time for burning a protest wreath. All of these love relationships, affairs, and infatuations cause for a very confusing and sophisticated web that supposedly mirrors the relations of love in the real world.
Straight from the beginning, one is forced to critically think about what is going on in this play. The first scene, one that is later found out to be a play within the play, vastly differs with the second scene, although the characters appear to be the same people. In scene one, Max and Charlotte are preforming one of Henry’s plays, whereas, in the second scene, they are simply being Max and Charlotte. During Henry’s play, the audience gets a deeper look into Henry’s mind as his play reflects his inner thoughts about an affair occurring between Max and Charlotte. In the first scene, Max confronts Charlotte about her possibly being in an affair. The very first thing to happen on stage is the collapse of a house of cards, symbolizing the collapse of trust within the household. The relationship between Henry and Charlotte is barely standing, as if it itself is a house of cards, and when the symbolic house of cards collapses in Henry’s play, so does the fragile house of cards keeping Henry and Charlotte together. Although this symbol carries through from Henry’s play into Henry’s life, the rest of the scene clearly contrasts with Max and Charlotte’s lives, giving the audience a very confusing and shocking twist straight from the get-go. From the very beginning the audience is forced to consider what is real and what is false. This sense of reality versus appearances is not only surface deep like with the play within a play first few scenes, but extends on a much deeper level to what is real and what is simply a misperception when it comes to love. What love is real and what love is simply for appearances sake? It is up to the audience to decide.
Throughout the play, this concept of reality versus appearances as well as simply what is real versus what is sometimes fake is hard to separate. It is clear that Charlotte and Henry’s love is not “The Real Thing”, but is Henry’s love with Annie any clearer? If Henry and Annie do exhibit true love, then why is it that Annie seems to be having other affairs as well? Although assumed, it is not unknown that she connects with both Billy and Brody on some deeper level than she connects with the average Joe passing by. Henry realizes this, but seems more troubled by his writing and musical taste than he does by his relationship during any given point in the play. If his relationship seems so worthless to him, how could it possibly be considered true love?
These are the types of questions Stoppard wishes for audiences to consider. In his production of the play, Cribben does a fabulous job of making sure these questions come up in everyone’s minds. His casting of characters and the development of said characters lead to the audience questioning what in the world is going on and how it might apply to life. Because older audiences might have experienced some of these crazy situations during their lifetime and understood the play much better than the youngsters, they seemed to be greatly enjoying the theatrics. Younger audiences, such as myself, were mostly greatly confused, however upon further examination of the play and consideration of the aspects brought up by the outrageous characters, these developments of figuring out truth and concept come to light.
The lighting and music also led to confusion then realization as the play progressed. Between each bright, well-lit scene, the area went completely dark. This lighting difference foreshadows that more change than just some simple change in scenery is about to occur. Each scene, though all connected through the advanced web of relationships and a common theme, were relatively different from the others, as evident by the drastic change of lighting between them. Also between scenes, music would play. Often this music was happy, upbeat music which contrasts with the corrupted view of love and the intense drama happening on the stage through the affairs and intermingling of the characters. The dark light yet happy music in between the well-lit yet intense scenes also makes one think about which is truly happening – well-lit, music-filled happiness or dark, intense action – since both occur at the same time. Lighting and music create an atmosphere that help to transpire the same theme throughout the play without the use of what was written – a great call made by Director Cribben.
This play shatters the happily-ever-after fairy-tale ending so many Hollywood and Disney movies seem to portray about love and romance. This play claims to be more “real”. Yet, what is real and what is not when it comes to love? Who is to determine this? The Real Thing does a wonderful job of making the audience consider these different aspects of not only love, but of life. I do not recommend such young audiences to see the play, as they will not understand it as well. However, I do recommend it to older people; perhaps it would be entertaining and the comedy it was intended to be for audiences 40 and up. Either way, it makes one think, something audiences should do more of instead of just wasting time seeing a useless play or movie.