Hampstead Theatre, January 15th 2016
I've been thinking of little else than the events of this play for a good week; is Hapgood that good? Famously slated during its first run, this now is the result of a rewrite and a different approach and has been warmly received by critics. I can't imagine that the play has changed that much, and view this more a reflection of Stoppard's unimpeachable reputation and our increased sophistication when it comes to pop science.
Hapgood is a play about spies but is clearly a play about science, and it is impressive. We see that spying is a zero sum game and ultimately futile for that reason. As either Hapgood (a female spymaster juggling career with motherhood) or Blair (her establishment boss) says, when referring to the Soviets, "we should write each other Christmas cards". A rugby match provides a useful background to reinforce this message, and the nihilism of competition. And yet science works. Whilst espionage offsets, science advances. My favourite passage is Kerner (a Russian physicist sent by the KGB, turned by Hapgood, possible turned back again - "Paul [Blair] thinks I was a triple, but I was definitely not, I was past that, quadruple at least, maybe quintuple") saying that his exposure wouldn't matter. He could be a spy or not a spy, he could work for one side or the other. That doesn't matter because the science remains the same. He arrived in England not to seek asylum, but because he wanted an IBM 195. His motivation is the truth, and the scientific pursuit of truth doesn't have sides. Indeed this was a sophisticated portrayal of the scientific method, bridging quantum mechanics (in particular the uncertainty principle) with security - "the experimenter makes the choice. You get what you interrogate for".
I felt Stoppard's take on crime writing was a little rich - through Kerner he expresses the view that science is more honest than fiction. Scientists present a puzzle and then solve it. They don't save puzzles in order to mislead their audience, then surprise them with a plot twist, and take glory for appearing smart. Stoppard follows through on this promise, revealing the secret to the whole play (I think) in the very first scene (albeit still having some fun by incorporating a twist that isn't a twist), but this hardly means he isn't showing off. Indeed science writing has moved on since when this play was written, as one of the most popular forms of science writing is exactly that type of "save up puzzles, present something as counterintuitive, then reveal the explanation" that Freakonomics has launched.
Hapgood is a play about doubles (duplicate briefcases, twins, beams of light) and I suspect there are (at least) two interpretations of events that are plausible. But I really don't know whether not knowing is the point. It was fun to keep hearing the voice of Sherlock,
It's never twins
I had some reservations about performances - most of the cast seemed around 10 years younger than their roles, and this grated. When Kerner used a "moth in St Paul's cathedral" analogy to explain the relative size of an electron and its nucleus he said it as if he was thinking on his feet, despite using a moth metaphor immediately before. This reinforced the idea that the sophisticated part of the play is the link between the plotline and the science. It isn't the science itself. Prominent Physicists don't build their reputation off the back of explaining basic quantum mechanics to establishment figures pretending they don't want to know. The Seven Bridges of Königsberg is a mathematical puzzle that students learn in high school. Everyone has heard of Euler. Implying otherwise is showing off.
I did spend much of the week trying to understand Euler's proof, and was disappointed that this wasn't critical to the plot. Despite having read the play before and attempted to map out the movements in Scene 1, I was still lost when I saw it take place before me. I'm not sure if I enjoyed this, or felt disappointed that it remained so far beyond my comprehension. But opening a play with three (!) pages of stage directions is bold and watching it unfold is worth the entry fee alone. Let me repeat that - this play is worth watching purely to see an enactment of the Bridges of Königsberg. I feared it'd be less impressive than a Tommy Cooper routine with balls and cups, and whilst it was less satisfying it was more enthralling. The fact that you also get an espionage thriller, several layers of humour, and genuine tenderness rounds it into an impressive evening. I went expecting to see a microcosm of what Stoppard would later achieve with Arcadia (they even shared the same lead cast). But this stands on its own feet as a very strong play. It's tellingly Stoppard and the performances were excellent.
One last thing - the play was published in 1988 and the first performance was on March 4th. It includes the following exchange:
Kerner: The West is morally superior, in my opinion. It is unjust and corrupt like the East, of course, but here it means the system has failed; at home it means the system is working. But the system can change.
Blair: No, it can't. Come on, Joseph, you know them - Budapest in '56 - Prague in '68 - Poland in '81 - we've been there! - and it's not going to be different in East Berlin in '89. They can't afford to lose
I noticed that the passage in bold was absent.