Category Archives: Stoppard Tom

Great moments in theatre: Arcadia

  • From Times Online, May 14, 2010
  • Benedict Nightingale
  • On April 13, 1993, at the Lyttelton Tom Stoppard’s complex comedy proved that the playwright had mind, wit and heart

And it all comes with a melancholy that’s understandable, given Thomasina’s death, Septimus’s madness and a universe that’s inexorably running down, like an old grandfather clock. Whoever said Stoppard lacked feeling? Arcadia, perhaps his best play, proved he had — and has — mind, wit and heart.

Arcadia

When the prepublicity for Tom Stoppard’s new play first went out, some of us thought that even his fizzing brainbox might have set itself too daunting a task. How could he pack subjects as different as landscape gardening and adultery, Romantic poetry and iterated algorithms, academic research and the end of the world, into a comedy that the man on the Clapham omnibus might understand and even enjoy? Well, Arcadia did at times leave you feeling that it had been jointly created by Oscar Wilde and the founding fathers of chaos theory — but I found myself urging that bus passenger to hijack the vehicle and drive it to the National box office. Stoppard didn’t just integrate all those topics into a lively, funny and, finally, moving plot; he whisked us to and fro between 1809 and 1993, using the same room in the same great house to show two generations of the Coverley family. Now a Regency tutor is evading the questions of the brilliant but innocent Thomasina Coverley — “Septimus, what is carnal embrace?”, “It is the practice of throwing one’s arms round a side of beef” — and now a don from the University of Sussex is idiotically concluding that Byron killed a minor poet in a duel while visiting the Coverleys. The stories grip, the connections become apparent. Thomasina doodles, and somehow doodles the death-dealing second law of thermodynamics. And elsewhere, too, classical order and Newton’s certainties are breaking down. A new passion rules in verse, illogic in scholarship, unpredictability in maths, madness in human relationships, which is pointedly defined as “the action of bodies in heat”. And outside Capability Brown’s exquisite vistas are being reduced to fashionable Gothic wildness.

Tom Stoppard: ‘I’m the crank in the bus queue’

  • Tom Stoppard gets riled by many things: bad grammar, constant interruptions, French Connection, and Steven Spielberg calling him in the shower. As The Real Thing gets a revival, he tells Mark Lawson why he longs to escape into a new play

Famously good-natured … Tom Stoppard. Photograph: Felix Clay

Tom Stoppard

Tom Stoppard would rather not be talking about The Real Thing. It is not that he has fallen out of love with his 1982 drama, in which a playwright leaves his wife for an actress and is then haunted by the difficulty of distinguishing fakery from reality in matters of the heart and art. He would simply much prefer to be in rehearsal for his next major original script, rather than reflecting on a revival. «I’m aware of my old plays and occasionally think about them,» he says, «but I’m much more anxious about finding the next play.»

Since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, in 1967, a new full-length Stoppard drama has arrived in theatres every four or five years. By this cycle, the successor to Rock’n’Roll – the Czech-born author’s exploration of his homeland’s recent political history – should appear in some theatre’s 2010-11 season. Does he feel the lack? «Yes, very much. My life feels, week to week, incomplete to the level of being pointless if I am not in preparation for the next play or, ideally, into it.»

Famously good-natured and lacking in arrogance, Stoppard had suggested meeting at the BBC (easier for me), rather than his Chelsea Harbour apartment, which would have been more convenient for him. Such courtesy is a major reason his next play is delayed. «London life, for one reason or another, mostly to do with what I suppose you’d call moral obligations rather than treats, although some of them are treats, is a life of constant interruptions – and I’m really quite desperate to find a corner where I can start saying no to people.» He wrote the Coast of Utopia trilogy and Rock’n’Roll at a house in France, but sold that sanctuary three years ago and has yet to find a replacement in England. «And I’m really finding with a vengeance that I can’t get any work done in the chaos of my London flat.»

He offers an illustration of the way his diary excludes writing: «Today, I had a memorial get-together for [the painter] Craigie Aitchison at noon, followed by an appointment at Apple because I dropped my phone on the concrete floor, followed by this interview at 3pm and then a meeting after. The world wouldn’t end – or even notice – if I missed the memorial, my phone has a cracked face but still works, and we could have talked on the phone or not at all, and so on. There are always a thousand things where one could have got away with saying, ‘I’m terribly sorry, would have loved to, but I’m in France.’ Somehow, one can’t quite get away with saying, ‘Terribly sorry, would have loved to, but I’m in Chelsea.'»

His most recent work includes a 10-minute sketch about torture for Cries from the Heart, an evening in support of the charity Human Rights Watch at the Royal Court theatre in June; and a six-part TV adaptation for the BBC of Parade’s End, Ford Madox Ford’s 1920s quartet of novels, in which a British military officer in the first world war reflects on a vengeful wife and celibate mistress at home. These scripts will need a co-producer, probably American. «I think it will happen quite soon, but the bugger of it is that I feel presumptuous talking about it until I know it’s going to happen.»

He also does uncredited script-doctoring on Hollywood movies, «about once a year»: most recently he worked on Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Ultimatum. «The second reason for doing it is that you get to work with people you admire. The first reason, of course, is that it’s overpaid.» Once, hearing the phone ring at home while in the shower, he took a call from Steven Spielberg on the set of Schindler’s List, agonising over a scene in Steven Zaillian’s script. Standing naked, Stoppard improvised a solution that was used in the movie. He remains bemused by this American habit of invisible script revision. «I actually got quite angry with Spielberg, who was and is a good friend, and told him just to film Zaillian’s script. But Steven, like a lot of other people in movies, tends to think one more opinion can’t hurt.»

Does Stoppard, whose plays reveal a deep moral sense, fret about the ethics of this? He shared the Oscar for Shakespeare in Love with Marc Norman, but the script is reputed to have been an almost complete revision of Norman’s starting draft and original idea. «I used to worry about it enormously,» he admits, «but it’s a different culture. It’s a moral issue, almost. A few years ago, I was invited to a film festival, as a freebie, because I’d done so much work on a movie that they said I should be there. And I said: ‘I can’t do that, because I’m not supposed to be on this film, and it’s unfair to the chap whose name is on it.’ But it just goes with the territory: these are the conditions one works under out there.»

What he craves is a new play. By his age (72), Beckett and Pinter were content with one-acts and fragments; Stoppard is still aiming for two acts and three hours, interval drinks and last-train tickets. Inspiration, though, is intermittent and mercurial. Past interviews are filled with tantalising references to scripts that never got written. In 1984, he mentioned to the New York Times a planned play about presidential bodyguards; there have been periodic hints about a drama involving the 19th-century critic and writer William Hazlitt.

«Ah, yes!» Stoppard exclaims, like someone being shown forgotten photographs. «I actually went and met the chief of President Reagan’s team of bodyguards. He told me they never, ever looked at the president: he wasn’t going to shoot himself. The other one: it wasn’t Hazlitt in toto, just a period in his life when he fell madly in love with a landlady’s daughter and she treated him quite badly. I’d still like to do that one – perhaps for radio.» After finishing Rock’n’Roll, Stoppard became fascinated by the looting of the Baghdad Museum, but no workable plot or dialogue ignited. «I’m wary of taking a big subject – say, the Iraq war – head-on. I have . . . not exactly an instinct, but a bias to try to get in sideways.»

Over the last six months, he has been reading widely on another very current political subject, which he asks me not to specify («I’ll look a complete idiot in a year if there’s no play»). But, having talked himself out of several potential subjects in the past, he sounds determined to think a way into this one. «Writing a new play shouldn’t be seen as a mystery belonging to a priesthood, but as a challenge, a technical challenge, just to get into it. The art pertains to the level you carry it off on. If I had been asked to write 1,200 words for a newspaper tomorrow, on any subject, I would just do it, rather than leave a white hole in the page. And I think it’s a very healthy attitude to take to writing anything. Just as a corrective – perhaps an overcorrective – to the opposite view, which I tend to flinch when confronted with: that it’s all rather deep and mysterious and special and precious. Sod that!»

Affairs of the head and heart

The Real Thing occupies a pivotal position in Stoppard’s output. It was the work that converted those who had found the plays in the first phase of his career – Rosencrantz, Jumpers, Travesties – too coldly intellectual in their spinning-off from literary, philosophical or political history. Stoppard was congratulated on his first drama of the heart rather than the head, although a few admirers regretted this shift in emphasis.

But the play also holds a somewhat lonely slot on his shelf. It is one of only three Stoppards with a completely contemporary setting; the others – the journalism drama Night and Day (1978) and the physics-and-spying play Hapgood (1988) – remain his only major scripts to have had no London or Broadway revival. After this modern-play interlude, he returned to literary-historical stories: Arcadia, The Invention of Love, The Coast of Utopia.

So the consensus remains that Stoppard is essentially a biographical dramatist, whose plays begin in the library, and that The Real Thing is a rare glimpse of the real him. Toby Stephens, who plays Henry at the Old Vic in London, told an interviewer that he had felt it wise to lunch with Stoppard in advance, as it is «such an autobiographical play». The journalist helpfully added that this was because The Real Thing dramatises Stoppard’s relationship with Felicity Kendal, who played the mistress of the fictional playwright in the London premiere. As neither Stoppard nor Kendal have ever publicly spoken about their affair, did the leading man’s declaration make him flinch?

«I only flinched because the chap who was buying Toby lunch just got it wrong. The whole thing was that it was supposedly to do with Felicity. In fact, The Real Thing was written two or three years earlier.» Indeed, the published script is dedicated to Dr Miriam Stoppard, then his wife. «I used to feel I should correct these things. Now, I think: if they want to think that about The Real Thing, then let it go.»

This reluctance to answer back is part of an insistence on keeping his private life locked away, an unfashionable reticence in an age when many public figures blog from the bedroom and Twitter from the divorce court. «I certainly feel my age in that respect,» he agrees. «I seem to belong to some doddery, codgery generation which finds it astonishing that people will, to quote from The Real Thing, just ‘deal their lives out to anyone standing around like a deck of cards’.» He says he didn’t even bother to read a recent biography. «No. I read a couple of reviews of it. And, in each case, there was a detail mentioned where I thought: Oops, that’s wrong, too.» The protagonist of The Real Thing is a dramatist, he explains, not for reasons of self-revelation but because he was intrigued by a rug-pulling structure: «I remember thinking it would be fun if scene one turned out to have been written by a character in scene two.»

A standard dilemma when reviving plays is whether to update them to the present, but the latest Real Thing will aim for a non-specific modernity: Stoppard has cut a half-page in which two characters discuss a VCR, which dated it to the 1980s. For him, the bigger issue in revisiting this play is that it plays a number of tricks on the audience and so, ideally, should only ever be seen for the first time. «I’m fascinated by this. With people who have seen it before, are we trying to hoodwink them again? If it were really well done, would they think ‘Ha! Got me again’? It changes one’s whole attitude to revelation and denouement. Things which seemed so important at the time are revealed as marginal to the play.»

The linguistic pedantry of the play’s central character is, however, surely autobiographical: when Henry complains that he can’t bear to see a page in one of his plays consisting of purely functional dialogue, it feels like his creator worrying about the transition from plays of the head to plays with more heart. In the same way, when the made-up playwright declares «Screw the whale, but save the gerund», we sense the support of the actual dramatist. «Yes,» Stoppard admits, «there’s a lot of editorialising. The pedantry is me. I’m vaguely embarrassed by myself sometimes. I’m offended by things and take pathetic little stands against them. When I was coming to meet you just now, I walked past French Connection, which still has that supposedly brilliant piece of advertising – FCUK – in the window. I used to like French Connection. But, from the moment those adverts began, I never set foot in one of the shops again. I refused to support anyone who thought this was clever rather than childish. I’m a sad case, really.»

Until recently, he confesses, he routinely wrote to newspapers complaining about the misuse of «who» for «whom» – «It still goes through me like a spear» – although he is coming to the conclusion that journalists no longer care. «I’m like the crank in the bus queue now. Who for whom spread from articles to headlines, and then headlines with ever bigger letters.»

In search of silence

The Real Thing’s defences of traditional English, and its satirical treatment of Brodie, an anti-nuclear campaigner, have helped to encourage the classification of Stoppard as a rare rightwinger among a generation of dramatists (Pinter, Bond, Hare, Brenton, Edgar) tending to the left. Does he accept this label? «I’m a conservative kind of person. I don’t think rightwing is quite the same thing. But I acknowledge my conservatism of temperament. And I don’t accept there’s such a thing as bourgeois morality or communist morality; it’s either moral or it isn’t.» Does he vote Conservative? «I certainly have in the past. But I voted New Labour, and then Green last time. I think this time I might vote Clegg, because I want him to remain a presence. But I’m just not a political animal. I won’t be up there on the hustings. I’m not as sure of my ground as that.»

Appropriately, one of the themes of this month’s revival is whether political belief can ever be more than a posture. But by the time the next government is in place, Tom Stoppard plans to have gone to the country in search of some silent space to write, hoping that the spark of an idea for a new play turns out to be the real thing.

Ενα αριστούργημα στην «Πόρτα» μας: «Rock-n-Roll» του Τομ Στόπαρντ

  • Η ελληνική σκηνή δεν έχει τίποτα να ζηλέψει από τον έξω κόσμο. Κι ας γκρινιάζουν οι κοσμοπολίτες της. Και τις νέες τάσεις παρακολουθεί με άνεση και εξασκημένα αντανακλαστικά έχει, παρουσιάζοντας ταυτόχρονα σχεδόν με τη θεατρική Ευρώπη την τελευταία λέξη της δραματουργίας. Και φρέσκες πειραματικές δουλειές συνυπάρχουν δίπλα σε παραδειγματικές παραστάσεις κλασικών κειμένων. Φυσικά, η «σκαρταδούρα» ποτέ δεν θα λείψει.
  • Αναρωτιέμαι, όμως, τι μπορεί να καθοδηγήσει σε έναν θεατρικό χάρτη χαοτικά πληθωριστικό τον θεατή, που έχει τη δυνατότητα να δει μια, το πολύ δύο -και πολλές λέω- παραστάσεις το μήνα. Τι να επιλέξει; Συγγραφέα, θίασο, πρωταγωνιστή; Αν πάντως αποφασίσει να κινηθεί με γνώμονα το έργο, θα του προτείναμε με ενθουσιασμό ένα αληθινό αριστούργημα: το «Rock-n-Roll» του Τομ Στόπαρντ, γραμμένο το 2006, στην παράσταση του Γιώργου Κοτανίδη στο θέατρο «Πόρτα», με τον ίδιο σκηνοθέτη και πρωταγωνιστή -ιδού ένα παράδειγμα ανήσυχου και «καλωδιωμένου» καλλιτέχνη με ό,τι συντελείται στο εξωτερικό.
  • Είναι τουλάχιστον αξιοθαύμαστο πώς τα κατάφερε ο τσεχικής καταγωγής Βρετανός συγγραφέας και συνδύασε, με τέτοια βαθύτητα, δεξιοτεχνία και οίστρο, σε βαθμό που το κείμενο να γίνεται δοκίμιο για την πολιτική, τον έρωτα και τη ζωή, τόσα πολλά και ετερόκλητα «υλικά» -πάντα, τιμώντας τον τίτλο του έργου, υπό τους δυνατούς ήχους της ξεσηκωτικής κλασικής ροκ μουσικής (Σιντ Μπάρετ, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Plastic people of the Universe κ.ά.). Το παράτολμο πείραμα να συνδυαστούν η πολιτική, κυρίως η διαλεκτική υπέρ και κατά του κομμουνισμού, με τη ροκ μουσική, η λυρική ποίηση με την ανθρώπινη αρρώστια, το γήρας, τον θάνατο, το Κέιμπριτζ με την Πράγα, από το 1968 ώς το 1990, δεν πέτυχε απλώς. Ο Στόπαρντ παρέδωσε στην Ιστορία της παγκόσμιας δραματουργίας ένα έργο-μνημείο. Μπείτε στον κόπο να κάνετε μια βόλτα από το «Πόρτα» και θα μας θυμηθείτε.
  • ΙΩΑΝΝΑ ΚΛΕΦΤΟΓΙΑΝΝΗ, ΕΛΕΥΘΕΡΟΤΥΠΙΑ – 16/03/2009

Pinter’s perfectly scripted farewell

Michael Gambon and Tom Stoppard attended the funeral of Harold Pinter

AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Michael Gambon and Tom Stoppard attended the funeral of Harold Pinter

By Jerome Taylor, The Independent, Thursday, 1 January 2009

For a deeply private man it was a brief and intensely private funeral. But, even in death, Harold Pinter made sure his final farewell was as carefully and poetically orchestrated as his life’s work with readings from one of his own plays and a poem about his favourite sport, cricket.

Friends, relatives and loved ones gathered to say goodbye to the lauded British playwright and polemicist in a quiet corner of Kensal Green Cemetery after his death on Christmas Eve from cancer.

About 50 guests, including his wife Lady Antonia Fraser and fellow playwright Tom Stoppard, turned up for the 15-minute ceremony which had been carefully planned by Pinter shortly before he died, aged 78. As a committed atheist, prayers were replaced by two secular readings, one an extract from his 1975 play No Man’s Land and the other a 19th-century poem about one of his greatest loves: cricket – a sport he once described as being «greater than sex».

The actor Sir Michael Gambon, currently starring in No Man’s Land at the Duke of York Theatre, was asked by the playwright three months ago over dinner in Dublin to read out a passage from the play, a dark tragicomedy about two ageing writers who meet as strangers on Hampstead Heath before drinking and reminiscing their way through the night.

Under grey skies in north London Sir Michael read: «You might even see a face in it that might remind you of your own, of what you once were. You might see faces of others in shadows or cheeks of others turning or jaws or backs of necks or eyes, dark under hats, which might remind you of others whom you thought long dead but from whom you will still receive a side-long glance if you can face the good ghost.»

When Sir Michael spoke the same lines on Boxing Day during the first production of the Pinter play after the writer’s his death, there was barely a dry eye in the audience.

Matthew «Harry» Burton, a friend of Pinter’s who was a regular in his Gaieties Cricket Club, also read the poem At Lord’s by the English poet and ascetic Francis Thompson who, like Pinter, found endless solace in a calm game of cricket on a balmy summer’s day.

That Pinter’s funeral had a decidedly cricketing theme to it is perhaps no surprise. In his final newspaper interview, given in October and published shortly after his death, he explained how, as a child in the pre-war years, he would wander down to fields that lay next to the River Lea, close to his Hackney home, to play cricket with his childhood friends – many of whom, he said, he was still in contact with.

«I used to get up at five in the morning and play cricket,» he said. «We walked down to the fields; there’d be nobody about – it would really very early in the morning, and there would be a tree we used as a wicket. We would take it in turns to bat and bowl; we would be Lindwall, Miller, Hutton and Compton. That was the life.»

For much of the past thirty years, Pinter captained and later became chairman of the Gaieties Cricket Club, a wandering cricket team that played in the Home Counties and was made up largely, though not exclusively, of fellow theatrical folk and literati friends.

It was founded in 1937 by the music hall artist Lupino Lane, whose company was at that time based at the Gaiety Theatre, in London.

At the end of every cricket season Pinter would read his teammates Thompson’s poem. In later years, his love of cricket was somewhat overshadowed by his political activism, in particular his acerbic attacks on US foreign policy.

His passing shortly before Christmas after many years of suffering from various forms of cancer left the literary world minus one of its most prolific and respected writers. As a mark of respect, theatres across Broadway on Tuesday night dimmed their lights for one minute during their evening productions. A memorial service which will be open to the public is being planned for the near future.

‘Allow the love of the good ghost’

Reading by Michael Gambon, taken from Pinter’s ‘No Man’s Land’

«I might even show you my photograph album. You might even see a face in it that might remind you of your own of what you once were. You might see faces of others in shadow or cheeks of others turning or jaws or backs of necks or eyes, dark under hat, which might remind you of others whom you once knew, whom you thought long dead but from whom you will still receive a sidelong glance if you can face the good ghost. Allow the love of the good ghost. They possess all that emotion trapped. Bow to it. It will assuredly never release them but who knows what relief it may give to them.

At Lords, a poem by Francis Thompson (1859-1907) read by Matthew «Harry» Burton, a friend of Pinter’s

It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,

Though my own red roses there may blow;

It is little I repair to the matches of the Southron folk,

Though the red roses crest the caps, I know.

For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast,

And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,

And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host

As the run stealers flicker

to and fro, To and fro.»