Tom Stoppard's flop 1988 spy drama comes in from the cold
As always with a Tom Stoppard play, 'Hapgood' is not actually about what you think it is. Sure, it may seem like a Cold War espionage thriller, but that’s just a front for the play’s true theme: quantum physics. The play is itself a double agent.
This is the first London revival of 'Hapgood' since its premiere in 1988. It was a flop back then, but Howard Davies’ production erases all trace of that disaster. But where to begin with the plot? Each scene brings a new twist, but basically when a briefcase swap goes wrong, spymaster Elizabeth Hapgood (Lisa Dillon) begins to suspect a leak among her agents.
The Cold War might be over, but the play doesn’t feel particularly dated. There’s just something so classy about a twisting standoff between Brits in smart overcoats and Russians in furry hats. And Ashley Martin-Davis’s design melds past and present niftily: almost 100 screens flicker across the back wall behind grey steel cubicles that could be anything: loos, filing cabinets, lockers, morgues. All good spy fodder.
The idea of a double agent is perfect Stoppardian material: both ambiguous and absurd. Like a pun, one of the hallmarks of Stoppard’s writing, it holds two separate and often contrary meanings at once. It’s applied to electrons in an atom, to identical twins, to the dual property of light as both wave and particle. The play serves is a highly wrought variation on the theme of doubleness.
The sciencey stuff is less heavy-handed than in Stoppard’s most recent play ‘The Hard Problem’, and when Alec Newman as Russian agent Kerner is dancing around the cavernous stage gesticulating and explaining the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle through the metaphor of St Paul’s Cathedral, well who cares that it’s heavy-handed? It’s also completely joyous.
Matter and anti-matter. Positive and negative. The same but different. ‘Hapgood’ explains it all with unparalleled verbal dexterity, and chucks in a rollicking spy story to boot.