There’s always some trepidation for me when faced with watching, certainly reviewing, a Tom Stoppard play.
No matter what the production you can guarantee that there will be a whole chunk, if not several intermittent lengthy scenes, devoted to science theory that will have an immediate effect on the audience.
They either glaze over, as I do, not knowing, or have interest in one molecule of science, or they sit forward to catch every word. It’s usually the men who do the latter (sorry if that sounds sexist, it’s just from experience and observation.)
But still Stoppard persists and when his plays come out and are denounced as baffling, he will rail against modern theatre-goers accusing them of not being bright enough to follow the physics.
Is it any wonder we can often be left confounded and intimidated?
That said, after watching the revival of his spy thriller, Hapgood, at the Hampstead Theatre, I’m proud that, despite the tricky subject matter, I stayed on track right the way through (a major triumph and breakthrough in my relationship between me and Tom, despite the presence of Quantum Theory).
I admit to liking a good spy thriller but you’ve got to be able to negotiate your way through a maze of incredibly convoluted plots that are packed with double-crossing secret agents, double agents, puppet-masters, moles and traitors and, in this case, a serious outbreak of twins.
The plots are all smoke and mirrors, sleight of hand and illusion. No-one is who they say they are – and those that are work for organisations that are known only by letters – the KGB, the CIA, MI5. Everyone talks in clichés to the extent that you’re not sure if the whole thing is a spoof.
Stoppard claims that Hapgood is a comedy. I’ve never felt that the playwright is particularly able when it comes to mirth. He knows the theory but is usually unable to put it into practice.
Overseeing this tale of espionage is Lisa Dillon’s capable Elizabeth Hapgood, a mother of a jolly nice, polite public schoolboy and Mother to the boys working in the shadows for the British government.
Hapgood is intelligent and a brilliant strategist (she plays chess without using a board), is super-good at what she does, and heads a department that has eyes and ears inside Russia.
She rarely swears and her worst cursing appears to be using “Sugar” and “cad!” It makes you wonder if Stoppard got his rather hackneyed dialogue from the same source as the play’s charismatic Russian double agent and scientist, Joe Kerner (Alec Newman), who has a penchant for idioms picked up from spy novels.
Mrs Hapgood somehow manages to combine heading the secret service with being a good mum, standing alone on the sidelines, watching her son’s hopeless prep-school rugger team lose another match.
The play begins with an intriguing scene almost based on the old shell trick with a combination of spies, agents, and briefcases containing secrets, being shuffled around at a drop until its conclusion finds us without the right case or the right spy.
The postmortem concludes that the cock-up was caused by a traitor – but who? And, if it’s who they think it is, then how is he getting away with it when he usually has a cast-iron alibi?
Gerald Kyd, as cold-blooded spy Ridley, is all-man. He walks purposely like John Wayne and sounds like George Lazenby (although at one point it’s more Albert Einstein with his expansive knowledge of science and advanced weapon technology). He’s an Alpha-Male who smoulders under a heavy brow, packs a gun, and trusts no-one.
Ashley Martin Davis’ austere set, backed by a wall of incongruous modern video surveillance screens, is pure Cold War. Hapgood was written in 1988, year before the Berlin Wall fell, and re-visited by Tom Stoppard six years later.
Although no dates are mentioned, or referenced, there is no modern technology evident either in spy central or on their person. At one point we see Hapgood’s boss, Paul Blair (the always superb and credible Tim McMullan) getting his hands mucky developing photos.
Where Hapgood falls down is that director Howard Davies doesn’t succeed in giving us an exciting and dynamic thriller, nor a complex spy story (I didn’t think I’d ever be saying that about a Tom Stoppard play) or a light comedy.
It stumbles to follow in George Smiley’s footsteps and its one prescient nod to modern times appears to be the lead being a woman spy chief (four years before MI5 appointed its first female director, Stella Rimington).
But the story is showing its age. The world, and the espionage business, have moved on considerably in the last 27 years.
Hapgood runs at Hampstead Theatre until January 23.
Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood, at Hampstead Theatre, is an old-school spy thriller posing as John le Carré but without the finesse. One for fans of the genre.