Sir Tom Stoppard OM is among the first rank of living playwrights.
Born in 1937 he shows no sign
of decline, producing a new play for the theatre every few years, and a trickle of top
quality screenplays for cinema and television.
The Coast of Utopia
he has dazzled and entertained theatre audiences across the world.
We saw his latest,
in August 2006 at the Duke of
York's Theatre in London's West End. One critic says that
it is his best play since ,
and the rest just love
In 1998 cinema audiences
enjoyed the fruits of his talent in the movie
which won for him and his collaborator Marc Norman the Oscar for best screenplay.
In October 2011 Variety
reported that Stoppard was talking to Disney about a
stage version of the movie to be staged in London.
Jump to our page for
a year by year account of Stoppard's life
and works including all of his screenplays, some of which are uncredited.
In November 2004 Gaynor and I attended a short event
at the National Theatre, one of a series to mark 75
years of Faber & Faber Drama books. This particular
interview with Stoppard concentrated on his play
which opened at the Aldwych Theatre in London
in 1974. I was privileged to see a preview of that
production starring John Wood and John Hurt, and the
following year bought the Faber paperback edition of the
script as soon as it was published. It was this copy
that I took to the book signing after the interview and
I asked Sir Tom if he didn't mind signing such an old
copy rather than a new edition on sale nearby. He
said that he didn't mind as he had a copy of the same
edition in his bag. When I told Gaynor's brother Paul of
the conversation, he asked whether I'd asked Sir Tom if
he wanted me to sign his copy! In 2011 We saw a new production at the Birmingham Repertory
Theatre and loved it again.
In 2003 the National Theatre revived Stoppard's
starring Simon Russell Beale as George and
Essie Davis as Dottie. Gaynor and I saw an early preview
and a later performance when the production had overcome
the technical problems posed by several sets moving on a
revolving stage. Russell Beale had never seen Michael
Hordern play the part, as we had, and made it his own. I
keep saying "Watch this man Russell Beale"; he is a star. The
production moved to the West End and transferred briefly
In 2000 Sir Tom Stoppard was was made a member of the Order of Merit
by HM Queen Elizabeth. Membership of the Order is a personal gift of the Queen, unlike
knighthoods which are awarded on the advice of government ministers. The order is limited to
twenty-four members at a time. Other members are Baroness Thatcher,
and the artist .
The sculptor Sir Anthony Caro, mathematician Sir Roger Penrose
and Nobel laureate chemist Sir James Black were also made members of the Order at the same time.
Selection of Works
Stoppard's latest play
opened at the Royal Court Theatre in 2006, as part of the
theatre's 50th anniversary celebrations. His inclusion
in the season led to controversy because Stoppard had never
written a play for the Court before - his plays had always
been commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare company or the
National Theatre. Some playwrights withdrew their
plays from the season in protest.
Nevertheless this play
has been hailed as Stoppard's best in years and has
transferred to the Duke of York's in the West End where it
plays to packed houses.
The play follows Jan, a Czech intellectual through the
years between the Prague Spring of 1968 and the Velvet
Revolution of 1989, but in the context of his love of Rock
music. An important influence in the Czech dissident
movement was a rock group called The Plastic People of the
Universe who were not revolutionary but just wanted to play
the sort of music being played in the West. That was deemed
to be subversive by the Communist regime. Jan, brilliantly
played by Rufus Sewell, studies at Cambridge University with
a died-in-the-wool British Communist Max played by Brian
Cox. Max cannot be shaken from his belief in Communism
despite the thousands of Russians killed by Stalin, and the
Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia which crushed the Prague
Spring when Dubček tried to humanise Communism.
This sounds dull, but Stoppard involves the audience by
giving Max's wife Eleanor played by Sinead Cusack, and his
daughter Esme central roles in the action. And of
course with Rock 'n' Roll. At the end of each scene
the lights go out, the sound of a rock song fills the
auditorium, and facts about the song are projected on a
screen in front of the stage, detailing the title, artist,
all the members of the band and who played what instrument.
The music finishes abruptly and the stage lights up to take
us straight into the next scene. The music in each
case is of the period current to the action of the play,
from Bob Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" in 1968 to The
Rolling Stones "You Got Me Rocking" of the early nineties.
There are sub-plots including Max's daughter Esme and Syd
Barrett, founder member of the Pink Floyd who lived (and
recently died) in Cambridge.
I never lost interest in the play, but after the reviews,
I have to admit to being slightly disappointed. I
shall certainly buy the play text, because with all
Stoppard's it is difficult to appreciate all the subtleties
of argument in the theatre. I felt that we hadn't come
to any conclusion at the end - maybe that's the point!
What I'm very positive about is the three central
performances. I saw Sewell as Osborne's Luther
at the National and was very
impressed, but here he is superb. I've always been an
admirer of Brian Cox on TV and film, and here he plays his
part so well that I cannot imagine anyone else playing it.
Sinead Cusack plays Max's cancer stricken wife movingly and
funnily in the first act, and in the last act plays his
daughter equally beautifully.
Like all Stoppard's plays this will bear rereading and
reviewing many times in the years to come.
|His play played to packed
houses for around six months at the Royal National Theatre. In early 1998 Gaynor and I managed to get seats perched
at the highest level of the Lyttleton Theatre to enjoy this fascinating 'comedy-meditation on love, life and art'.
It has everything that one expects from Stoppard; a densely packed text with references and allusions that one knows
will only become clear when one has read the text, but carried along with strong characters and above all very
funny dialogue. There are always memorable one-liners or extracts. Here for instance the 77 year old poet A E Housman,
recently deceased and being rowed across the River Styx by Charon the boatman, whose character is based upon a typical
cabbie ("I had that Dionysus in the back of my boat"), meets his younger self just arrived at Oxford University.
On realising who he is talking to, the elder Housman says "Well this is an unexpected development. Where can
we sit down before philosophy finds us out. I'm not as young as I was. Whereas you, of course, are."
Stoppard is still most widely known for his first successful play
in which the minor characters from Shakespeare's Hamlet
are trapped in a world over which they have no
control. They are pawns in a game, the rules of which are not available to them.
The characters who appear to be in control sweep onto the stage speaking Shakespeare's timeless verse, and sweep
off again leaving our two heroes trying to work out what they are expected to do next. Only the company of players
can talk on their level, and they are at once even more dependent on an audience, and cynical about how to survive
in this 'world'. Stoppard's own movie version of the play, while faithful to the original did not work as a film.
It was a great disappointment, but if you can't get to see the play, then do
watch the video.
Trevor Nunn's production of the play appeared at London's
Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2011 and we looked forward to seeing it again.
I was in the minority in being a little disappointed, but it is still a dazzling
Shakespeare In Love
In 1998 Stoppard's co-written screenplay for the movie
was a huge success at cinemas across the world.
A romantic comedy centring on the fictional love affair between young
played by Joseph Fiennes and a young beauty
played by Gwyneth Paltrow. It won a number of Oscars including that for
best picture. The award for best screenplay went to Stoppard and Marc Norman,
and Gwyneth Paltrow and Judi Dench won the Oscars for best actress
and best supporting actress respectively.
Gaynor and I went to see it in 1999 and loved it. Gaynor bought me the
video for Christmas.
It is a touching love story, beautifully acted, but because it is (co)written by
Stoppard the dialogue is constantly witty and intelligent.
There are numerous intentional anachronisms; Will has a cup with the
inscription "A Present from Stratford", and he has regular sessions with a practitioner
in which he lies on a couch and explains his writing block in Freudian terms.
Dame Judi Dench only appears very briefly as Queen Elizabeth I
but is superb as always.
What is more when filming was completed Dame Judi asked
what was happening to the inside of the playhouse set
in which much of the action takes place. On being told that it would be burned
she asked if she could have it. They agreed and she now has a splendid reproduction
of an Elizabethan playhouse in her garden waiting for
someone to provide a home for its rebuilding.
A home has indeed been found on the site of
Collins Music Hall in Islington, London, which burned down in 1958. The Rose is
to be sunk below ground level
and covered in glass. It will be used as a theatre all year round, and funded
by the sale of apartments above ground, and a restaurant and pub with a
Shakespeare theme. I hope the plans come to fruition, and I look forward to
A biography of Tom Stoppard including a list of his work
||A list of Stoppard's works many of which you may buy from