January 21, 2016
According to the programme, Tom Stoppard’s Hapgood was first staged on the West End in London in 1988 and then never again, appearing on Broadway in New York in 1994 and then being duly returned to the list of interesting plays that never caught on for whatever reason. It can’t be because Stoppard isn’t in favour; Shakespeare in Love was a hit on stage just two years ago (though he only provided the screenplay on which the play was based) and his most recent play, The Hard Problem, premiered at the National Theatre just last year. So why has Hapgood been away so long and can the Hampstead Theatre provide a revaluation that moves it onto the same turf as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Arcadia?
That’s the one truthful thing you can say about Hapgood in Hampstead, for this is an espionage play that features a whole variety of doubles and twins and you’re deliberately kept in the dark over which characters are on stage at any one moment. Added to this, for the few characters that are without an apparent double in the story’s narrative, Stoppard theorises that their double is simply an alternative version of their own personality. Are spies ever truly on one side during a war or are they also unsure about which country they’re representing?
Perhaps it’s best to explain the plot using the official synopsis from the website. ‘London 1988. The Cold War is approaching its endgame and somebody in spymaster Elizabeth Hapgood’s network is leaking secrets. Is her star Double Agent a Triple? The trap she sets becomes a hall of mirrors in which betrayal is personal and treachery a trick of the light.’ This lays the groundwork for the wonderful nature of what is come with a fair amount of quantum physics thrown in. Well, it wouldn’t be a Tom Stoppard play without it!
The set provides more than a few ideas for future events, with an entire wall of screens forming the background to the performance. Sometimes they flood the theatre with white noise, whilst at other times a simple image is presented; a giraffe denotes we’re in the zoo, the bottom of a swimming pool is…well, a swimming pool. It’s simple but stylish and adds to the foreboding, noirish tones. This effect is emphasised by the superb score that accompanies the set changes; techno-laden music that fractures through the suspicions of each character.
It goes without saying that the acting on display is very good from the whole cast, especially those that have to play their double or twin. Without giving away anything of the plot, we’ll simple state that the entire cast are brilliant with particular praise having to go to Lisa Dillon in the titular role and Alec Newman as Kerner, the physics loving double agent…or is he? The direction from Howard Davies can be a little slow at times, but then this isn’t helped by the difficult plotting and quantum physics explanations. It’s dense but intriguing and the play is still eminently enjoyable, though we did hear others complaining at the interval. But you know what? We love a good spy drama with immaculately costumed characters and feel this more than holds its own as an accomplished piece of theatre. Here’s hoping it isn’t another 28 years before the play is revived in London once again.
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By Henry Fosdike