The Invention of Love (Tom Stoppard) Oxford Playhouse 21 February

****

Still from YouTube trailer

Still from YouTube trailer

The play began with a dead A. E. Housman (or was he only dreaming?) meeting Charon before being ferried across the Styx in a punt, and continued with scenes from various stages of Housman’s life:  as a student; living in digs with Moses Jackson; lecturing to students; the old Housman meeting the young Housman beside a poetically unidentified river; together with some parallel appearances by Oscar Wilde.

The Oxford jokes certainly hit home with the audience, and Stoppard succeeded in making textual criticism seem both understandable and interesting.  The title of the play refers to Catullus inventing the love-poem and hence your own love as something you reflect/talk/write about in all its messiness, and the examples of Latin poetry that made their appearance were very lovely without quite capsizing the play.

The crucial scene surely has to be were Oscar Wilde ridicules Housman for the egregious bathos of:

Shot? so quick, so clean an ending?
Oh that was right, lad, that was brave:
Yours was not an ill for mending,
‘Twas best to take it to the grave.

Oh you had forethought, you could reason,
And saw your road and where it led,
And early wise and brave in season
Put the pistol to your head.

After making a few attempts at self defence, the older Housman stood stoically, occasionally twitching his glued-on moustache, and seeming much more genuinely poetical that Wilde, whose appalling facility and cleverness here is surely Stoppard’s reflection on himself.

Another still from YouTube

The student actors here made effective use of hair dye and facial hair to conceal their appalling youthfulness, and I was especially impressed by Matthew Osman as Housman, with his bravura lecture before the interval curtain and his uncertain stoicism, while Joseph Robertson as Younger Housman and Jonathan Webb as Jackson were also very good.  What might have been rather a reckless staging, with Stygian punt and red rowing-boat came off too…

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