(Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/17.)
I feel I’ve measured out my working life in Stoppard plays. As a young freelance, newly arrived in London, I was asked by Philip French in 1966 to do a review for the BBC Third Programme of two radio plays by a then unknown Tom Stoppard. They were called If You’re Glad I’ll Be Frank and The Dissolution of Dominic Boot, and they revealed a whimsical absurdity and formal brilliance that were instantly striking.
Now, nearly 50 years later, I find myself in pre-match training for a new Stoppard play at the National Theatre. All I know about The Hard Problem is that it will be directed by Nicholas Hytner and concerns a young psychology researcher wrestling with the conflict between matter and consciousness. But although I’ve reported on every Stoppard first night over the last half-century, I still haven’t come to any definite conclusion about his status as a dramatist. Perhaps that’s the point. Stoppard is a writer capable of inciting admiration, awe and astonishment as well as a baffled bewilderment, sometimes all in the same evening.
His virtues as a dramatist are by now well known. Although he has changed and developed as a writer, some qualities are constant from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) to Rock’n’Roll (2006). In Stoppard’s work there is always an intellectual exhilaration that led Jeremy Treglown to describe him as a “one-man Adult Education Centre”. Stoppard also has the capacity to bring unlikely opposites into flamboyant juxtaposition. Above all, there is a delight in the punning possibilities of language that makes him one of theatre’s most accomplished wordsmiths. On the downside, his research sometimes sits on top of a play rather than being integrated into its fabric, and there is often a tension between intellect and emotion. In his best work that tension is beautifully resolved; at other times you feel the head winning out over the heart.