Piccadilly Theatre. Directed by David Leveaux. National Theatre, Lyttelton revival transferred to the Piccadilly in November 2003
A sparkling revival of a play that still continues to engage, delight, and mystify. A philosophical farce, a farcical comedy of ideas; a play whose form and meaning are a fully articulated material mirror of the ambiguity and inconclusiveness against which its central character, a second and more minor George Moore, professor of moral philosophy, valiantly and continually but vainly struggles. Simon Russell Beale is marvelously engaging in the central role; yet, in good — no, the best — British farcical tradition, all the actors are at the top of their form and the timing is what the Brits would call “spot-on.”
A play impossible to summarize, and I decline to try. There is so much in this play, in this production of it, that is quintessentially theatrical (as all good farce is) that it is hard to see how it could be bettered. The speed of the delivery is extremely rapid and yet every word is faultlessly and naturally clear. Simon Russell Beale has a stupendous long list of credits, and it is easy to see why. He has unrivaled presence and a genius for projecting the soul of liveliness. The other actors complement him while presenting an effective comic contrast to him.
There is a program note by the Oxford philosopher Lord Quinton (Anthony Quinton) entitled Philosophy in Farce. It proves conclusively that he knows nothing whatever about farce, whatever he may know about philosophy. He cites four “defining characteristics,” none of which comes remotely close to the central idea of a character striving toward an illicit goal of some kind and finding himself constantly thwarted by a hostile world. George Moore’s goal is, of course, the answer to the question “What, or Who, is God?” We never find out the answer, any more than we are able to discover who the murderer is of the gymnast (though we may have our suspicions). Stoppard has once again folded his long-standing preoccupation, his interest in placing a nonentity at the center of a mortal struggle, into a dazzling farce, on the order of the Guildensternian “Now you see me, now you don’t.” The comment someone made that thinking is only another form of gymnastics brings onto the stage eight peerless gymnasts — one of whom is mysteriously shot. We never find out who did it, or why. But meanwhile we are in for a long excursus, Stoppardian style, on causes that never really comes to any conclusion but meanwhile is some of the best fun you’re likely to have in the theatre for many a moon.