UNCERTAINTY PRINCIPLES AND UNPRINCIPLED CERTAINTIES
It is a mildly shaming reflection that Tom Stoppard plays generally dismissed by his cadre of scholarly admirers as “not his best work”, str going to be the ones I enjoy most. While I am often left cold by those cited as masterpieces. Never mind. This one – written and set in the last days of the Cold War 27 years ago – is a thoroughly enjoyable espionage comedy-thriller. Ideal for a John le Carré fan and Cold War kid fresh from enjoying BRIDGE OF SPIES, who also enjoys fleeting moments of thinking she understands particle physics and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Which is to say, it was just my bag. A pre-Christmas treat.
Stoppard gleefully picks up all the spook jargon about ‘joes’, safe houses, American CIA “cousins”, drops, assets, and dead Bulgarian pimps at “Athens station”. Though he does take care to mock himself for all that, in the person of the Russian double (or possible triple or quadruple) agent Josef the physicist who points out that in the end the villain is always the nice guy everyone liked. With equal magpie pleasure the playwright also picks up the physics, as a complex double-triple-crossing plot rejoices in parallels with electrons. These can seemingly be in two places at once, just as one – or possibly all – of the main protagonists may actually be twins. Or may not. Anyway, there is much verbal play with the ideas of positive/negative, matter/antimatter, presence/absence , truth/lies, science / art, etc.
The heroine Ms Hapgood is (presciently for the ‘80s) a senior spook and agent-runner, known as “Mother” to the men alongside or below her. She is also mother of a nice muddy little prep school boy, and therefore uses the red scrambled telephone regularly for messages about his rugger boots and hamster. Lisa Dillon gives Hapgood a sort of sharp intelligent anarchy, making wholly credible the situation she has landed in – a single mother, involved professionally and personally with one of the key men, with inevitable complications. Dillon is also – no spoilers – required at one point to perform something quite different and intensely entertaining, possibly as part of a deceit against one colleague, or perhaps another.
Tim McMullan, deploying a perfect Establishment face, is dryly funny as Blair, described by the engaging Josef (Alec Newman) as “a Bachelor of Arts First Class with an amusing incomprehension of the sciences” yet who has less soul than the Russian physicist. Gerald Kyd is the more gun-happy, macho Ridley, and Gary Beadle brings just the right air of affronted CIA arrogance to the “Cousin”, who reckons these damn Brits are leaking particle-chat to Moscow but doesn’t know how.
Howard Davies’ production is elegantly set before a changing video-wall and some sliding steel cubicle doors, sometimes representational (it starts with assorted spies and their shadows creeping around with briefcases at a swimming-pool) sometimes semi-abstract, expressing the equations and diagrams of Josef’s secret antimatter research. Which, in the most serious twist of all, is revealed as a completely pointless non-weapon in what was fast becoming a pointless spying war. It’s all the opposite of the deadly seriousness of Michael Frayn’s COPENHAGEN, if you like. Which is the last time that this arts graduate sat in the stalls getting properly excited about electrons.
Box office 020 7722 9301 www.hampsteadtheatre.com to 23 January