The Sydney Morning Herald
Friday 24 October 2003
Tom Stoppard’s 1982 play opens with architect Max (Andrew Tighe) building a house of cards on his coffee table. His wife, Charlotte (Heather Mitchell), arrives home, apparently back from Switzerland.
Max has suspicions, and has been going through her things while she was away. He has found her passport, which makes the Alpine trip slightly less tenable.
Charlotte’s apparent infidelities multiply, and at the close of the scene she’s out the door suitcase in tow.
This little domestic tragedy is Stoppard’s first trick. This scene is from the play House of Cards, by playwright Henry (Hugo Weaving). Charlotte is his wife, Max an actor married to Annie (Angie Milliken).
Max and later Annie turn up at Henry and Charlotte’s house – Henry has a sense of guilt because he only wrote the thing, while Max has to do it every night.
Of course, there’s a complication with that sense of guilt – Henry and Annie are in love, although their partners don’t know it yet – but Stoppard is already happily off, constructing his clever echoes, parallels and symmetrical recursions.
Robyn Nevin’s production opens with a nicely constructed montage of radio moments, which starts in the present and effectively pulls us back into the 1980s.
Records play a big part. Henry is agonising over an upcoming appearance on Desert Island Discs. Henry loves classic ’50s and ’60s rock and pop songs, but he’s worried these choices won’t appear intellectual enough. He tells a story of someone trying to introduce him to "real" music (Callas in an Opera).
And of course, the "real thing" of the title is that problematic but deeply sought concept: mutual, truthful and exclusive sexual love.
The performances from the three leads are wonderful.
Weaving is irrepressibly dynamic, an impish, grinning physical explosion of comic charm and banter. It’s supremely confident and exhilarating acting, grounded in some very real and effective emotion as the play develops.
Milliken is much more kittenish, a girlish ingenue who has trouble finding the exact word she wants but still brims with slightly naughty bravado and glee.
Mitchell does terrific and arresting work as the dry-as Charlotte, a study in perfectly timed acidic undercutting.
Tighe is a little unsettling in the first scene, but he’s actually doing a good performance of slightly bad acting.
The minor roles (Alexander Jenkins, Jaime Mears and Joshua Rosenthal) are fine if understandably insubstantial compared with the dominating leads.
Brian Thomson’s set design perhaps takes the "house of cards" idea a little too literally, with a giant viaduct of playing cards the dominant feature.
It’s an oddly solid monument to a metaphor about the insubstantial, although despite tremors and pain nothing really does come crashing down (as Annie notes: "It’s only a couple of marriages and a child" that are at issue).
Stoppard’s legendary verbal wit and structural inventiveness manage to be both delightful and deep: an easy comedy about the infidelities of the artistic classes mixed with some strong ideas about reality, politics, writing, knowledge (carnal and general) and above all, the gap between our idealised hopes of love and the actual lived experience of loving.
It’s a pleasure to decode, yet the play and production work equally well at the level of narrative. Even so, all would-be playwrights should memorise the cricket bat metaphor. There’s also a general warning for all: if you arrive home with a gift from foreign parts in a small paper bag to find your partner sitting stock still in the middle of the couch, it’s probably all over. Even if you thought it was real.