First performed in 1997, Tom Stoppard’s play blurs the borders between the dead and the living in its telling of the life of A.E. Housman. Housman’s existence was a complicated one, though his unrequited love for fellow student Moses Jackson played a chief role in marking his doom. This production succeeds in evoking this intellectual complexity, while never fleeing from the severity of emotional loss which drives Housman’s increasing morose outlook.
The play begins in the realm of the dead, with an old, dressing-gown-clad Housman arriving at the banks of the Styx. From the outset, Sam Groom brings a gravity to the role of the deceased, world-weary A.E., though the latter of those adjectives does scant justice to the gloomy cynicism which he evokes so unrelentingly well. The black humour which begins to define this opening is strikingly offset by our subsequent entrance into the university world of the young Housman – an equally potent performance by Seth Kruger.
The dynamic and contrast between Kruger and Groom as the two Housmans, together with their shared affection for Jackson, give the play an ineffable tragedy beyond the words they utter. It is far from a clichéd tale of unreturned love, though. Housman’s ultimate indefinability, his enigmatic essence, is writ large on Kruger’s face. Through both words and physical expressivity, he communicates both an unbridled (though not misplaced) youthful arrogance and an air of vulnerability which becomes increasingly heartrending.
To say that classical references abound in this play would be an understatement, for there is almost as much Latin spoken as there is English. This might seem trying at first, though its purpose is more than justified. Its preponderance amongst the professors and scholars who occasionally gather in the play seems merely a pose, a deliberate contrast to its all-engulfing effect on Housman. More pertinent and moving, though, is the notion of ‘comradeship’ which Housman discovers therein. It is in this guise that he talks of his fondness for Jackson. It is repressed sexuality gauged within a fantasy of antiquity.
The play’s density makes the consistent emotiveness of the performances all the more impressive. In particular, however, Groom’s portrayal of Housman is far too lived-in to be termed a ‘performance’; its power transcends such shallow terminology. Most of the other actors, of which there are a considerable number, rarely disappoint. The grandiose surroundings of Trinity’s Old Combination Room should, theoretically, at least threaten to dwarf the intimacy of the drama. But they never do. Despite the multiple settings and time-frames encompassed and merged by the play, at its heart is a profound, human suffering which renders all else superficial and frivolous.
The isolation which this production illustrates so darkly and intensely brings to mind Morrissey’s succinct diagnosis of Housman’s condition: ‘always alone – thinking himself to death’. The play’s success in conveying this aloneness despite the preponderance of characters is extraordinary.
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The Invention of Love is on in the Trinity Old Combination Room until Saturday.