The Real Thing: Stoppard’s cricket bat incites to write

cricket-bat1It’s amazing to me how few still-composing A-list playwrights there are out there with work in heavy rotation. The Big Guns – the few that we waggish theatre-types gush about to each other about over the good glassware – seem to move in trend cycles through the Canadian stages and kind of define the period; Mamet segues into LaBute back into Mamet who gives way to a flutter of Shanley…we seem to be coming into a Stoppard right now, CanStage has announced the inclusion of the dense and lovely Rock ‘n Roll in their upcoming season, The Invention of Love is impending at Jericho and The Real Thing is impressing its eager audience right now on the Granville Island Stage. I’m just waiting on the announcement of another mounting of Dogg’s Hamlett/Cahoot’s Macbeth, surely not far behind.

I’m just thinking out loud here, but does theatre have a kind of collective consciousness when it comes to established works? Do we adhere to the cache of a particular playwright at certain periods the way that hem lines and Federal Government approval ratings rise and fall? There was a gush of Sarah Kane productions awhile back from points all over the continent after years of shying away from the complexities (and rawness) of In Yer Face, perhaps there’s some connective undercurrent in the gestalt that gurgles up a particularly masterful voice that resonates at a particular time.

If this is the theatre community’s version of cycling through CDs in the car stereo, I’m pretty happy with the current playlist. Seeing The Real Thing at the Arts Club last week reminded me of how much I like my theatre with some loquacity, Stoppard is a giant word-nerd and proud of it. This ain’t theatre for the uninitiated, the dialogue unspools relentlessly, and it takes solid actors to keep it rolling throughout. (Which the Arts Club certainly had, especially in leads Jennifer Lines and Vincent Gale who made it look easy, and in young Julie McIsaac, looking in her short time on stage like she was having the time of her life.) This work wears its brains on its sleeve, and is obviously autobiographical. (‘Auto-something’, in Stoppard’s own words.) It was written in 1982 as a reaction to critics who panned the playwright for being unable to write about love, and for not providing good roles for women. Whether or not he was successful in that reach is something you’ll have to judge for yourself, but he certainly succeeded in writing a love letter to the power of the written word. His avatar in the play, Henry, beautifully snobs out about a bad piece of writing by metaphorically comparing a cricket bat to a plain plank of wood:

real-thing-078sThis [cricket bat] here, which looks like a wooden club, is actually several pieces of particular wood cunningly put together in a certain way so that the whole thing is sprung, like a dance floor. It’s for hitting cricket balls with. If you get it right, the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly. What we’re trying to do is write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock it might travel… [He clucks his tongue and picks up Brodie’s script.] Now, what we’ve got here is a lump of wood of roughly the same shape trying to be a cricket bat, and if you hit a ball with it, the ball will travel about ten feet and you will drop the bat and dance about shouting ‘Ouch!’ with your hands stuck into your armpits. [indicating the cricket bat] This isn’t better because someone says it’s better, or because there’s a conspiracy by the MCC to keep cudgels out of Lords. It’s better because it’s better. You don’t believe me, so I suggest you go out to bat with this and see how you get on. [he reads] ‘You’re a strange boy, Billy, how old are you?’ ‘Twenty, but I’ve lived more than you’ll ever live.’ Ooh, ouch! [He drops the script and hops about with his hands in his armpits.]

This play was a marvelous reminder to me – written as it was for the theatre set, playwrights in particular – that we need to aim at writing cricket bats, then taking to the field with them. If for no other reason than there is lots of room out there in the field for playwrighting that we, the keepers of the collective consciousness, will deem the next big thing.

‘Cricket Bat’ courtesy of Flikr user No Sex, Bone Dragon

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