It is an interesting experience to see a play after glimpsing into the rehearsals: you feel as if you know some of the notes, remember a few of the lines, but it is an altogether different experience. Gone are the half-costumes and nearly remembered lines, replaced with a rehearsed slickness which is hard to relate to jovial camaraderie of the last frantic weekend of rehearsal I saw on Saturday for The Invention of Love. Thursday’s performance was filled with all that the cast had promised me over the weekend: the ubiquitous Latin textual criticism, synonymous with the main character of the play, Trinity Fellow Alfred Housman, the sharp wit of Tom Stoppard, the glories and tragedies of unrequited love.
Opening with a recently deceased Housman, played with a dry wit and palpable yearning by Sam Groom, about to begin his journey across the River Styx, accompanied by Charon, the audience is immediately thrown into Oxford life at the end of the nineteenth century. The witty repartee between the younger Housman, an incredibly nuanced performance from Seth Kruger, with his university friends Alfred Pollard and Moses Jackson (Yaseen Kader and Jack Harding respectively, who bounce off each other with carefree ease) portrays a university experience that, although technically set over one hundred and twenty years ago, still has the same awkward silences and stilted enthusiasm of those first days of Fresher’s Michaelmas. Appearances from Pater, Jerome K Jerome and Ruskin are delightfully sharp, although are slightly impenetrable due to a slight propensity towards ‘ahcents’ and the speed of speech, although I imagine this cannot be helped: Stoppard is as wordy as ever. The jokes fall fast and loose: I expect that Classicists may enjoy the opening Act immensely, even though I found the pacing slightly uneven.
The real strength of the play falls on Act II. A gut-wrenching scene reflects the conflict at the very centre of Housman: the importance of his friendship with Jackson and his increasingly evident romantic feelings for him. It featured an extraordinarily moving performance from Kruger, who carried the weight of Housman’s emotions like Atlas on his back. If Jackson was a gaping wound for young Housman, Groom plays him like an old scar, never leaving him. Another standout scene was the penultimate, a conversation between Oscar Wilde (Mini Smith) and the older Housman. There is the typical Wildean aphorisms, played with panache by Smith, but this mood turns when the conversation turns to the relationship between Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, that which eventually led to Wilde’s imprisonment. Wilde’s description of love as ‘the piece of ice in the fist you cannot hold or let go’, a classical reference to Sophocles–as if it could be anything else in The Invention of Love–is an image that stays with the audience long after the ending of the play. The ‘love that dare not speak its name’ informs much of the drama of the play, the spectre of institutional homophobia juxtaposed: old Housman’s quiet defeat against Wilde’s flagrant disavowal of caring about what society thinks. I’m not sure I could tell you what Stoppard wants his audience to think about how Housman acted, or how Wilde did–just that for every Wilde, free and unashamed, there is a Housman, gripped with pain.
The Invention of Love questions the nature of scholarship: Housman mourns the loss of ancient scholarship keenly, like the death of a loved one. These masterpieces are lost in time, Housman and Charon (Shefali Kharabanda) talk over the loss of the writings of Aeschylus in a particularly amusing scene: the only fragment Charon remembers of a lost text is the only one that already exists. This classic Stoppardian joke encapsulates the play as a whole: touched with sadness at something lost, edged with a dark humour, wrapped in a classical metaphor.
The Invention of Love will play in Trinity College’s Old Combination Room between the Wednesday (04/02/15) and Saturday (07/02/15). Tickets may be purchased via ADC ticketing; tickets sell from £6. Ticket price includes a complementary glass of wine.
Mimi Trevelyan-Davis (Culture Editor)