Review – Hapgood – Hampstead Theater

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The Hampstead is right in its happy place with this productionl of Hapgood, a revival of a Stoppard work from the balancing point in his career where he was still riding the line between intellectual inquiry and entertainment in his plays. Written twenty years after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead but a mere five years before Arcadia, Hapgood comes from a richly productive time in Stoppard’s life where I imagine a little dalliance in something light seemed like a refreshing change. So for the audience, we get a fast-paced night of guns, deceit, and triple crosses, with some chewy lectures on particle physics that must have seemed zingily fresh when new but which come across as a bit quaint post-Constellations (I mean, who doesn’t know about Heisenberg and make jokes about dead cats in a box these days?). It’s idea for the Hampstead crowd, which I fancy considers itself up on intellectual concerns yet still desirous of entertainment whilst in the theater: they wants jokes that they can feel smug about laughing at – but they still want jokes.

Hapgood posits a single mother working for MI6 in charge of important operations as the cold war is winding itself up. We are given a few mysteries (none of which is how did a woman advance so far in those less-enlightened days; another is how did a “bit of rough” become an expert in the experimental application of dark matter?), most of which center around “who is loyal to whom,” with “whom” being either a country or (more interestingly) a person. The loyalties of the various spies within the agency are under scrutiny, and we, the audience, debate which of the various spies is loyal to which of their coworkers and which to the UK/US versus Russia. We are also given a mystery about an exchange of briefcases in a bathroom at the beginning of the show, and a delightful logic puzzle that introduces the concept of twinnage as a solution for someone being in two places at the same place; does it make the math work? Interval drinks while we debate.

Lisa Dillon has a great time playing top spy Mrs Hapgood, cheering her son on in his rugby games in one scene, repulsing ex-lover(s?) in a shooting gallery in the next. Fellow spy Blair (Tim McMullan) doesn’t seem nearly as well rounded by comparison, but his own woodenness was nicely rounded by the extravagant emotions of Russian physicist Kerner (Alec Newman). I suspect Stoppard cared more about his character than nearly any of the others, as he’s the one used to spout off most of the scientific blather; it seems simultaneously normal and somewhat boring to listen to someone discuss that passionately his work, and I think Stoppard must have wanted him to seem very real; in some ways more real than everyone else in the play. He is the one we are meant to observe; as we focus on him, the direction of all of the other (unobserved) particles becomes merely a question of proper equations, this relationship x this chemistry = this outcome.

Through a thirty-year lens, this play has become charming and nostalgic; politics and science and plays have all moved on since this was written, and it seems a cuddly little toy from a day when people thought these things really matters. Stoppard doesn’t care about making his plays watchable anymore; I look to Scarlett Thomas when I want to think about the underpinnings of the world. But for a good night out – at just under 2 1/2 hours running time – Hapgood does deliver the goods.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Decmeber 8, 2015. It continues through January 23rd. Might I suggest you consider the Caryl Churchill play at the National if you really want something intellectually challenging: it’s a bargain at £15 a pop.)

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