The story concerns A.E. Housman, a professor and poet who wrote the popular 'A Shropshire Lad'. The play begins in 1936 when Housman had just died in Evelyn Nursing Home and now finds himself next to the riverbank waiting to be taken to the great 'Otherside'. However, before he makes this last journey he has visions of his younger self many years ago at Oxford College.
This dream like play has the elderly Housman talking to his younger self. It is revealed that Housman, who was one of the greatest classical scholars of his age, has a homosexual love for a college friend called 'Jackson'. However, Jackson is a heterosexual and thus unattainable. It is this obsessive love for his friend entwined with his almost obsessive love of poetry and scholarship that was to make Housman a lonely and tortured man for most of his life. At the end of the play there is an imaginary meeting with Oscar Wilde (they never met in real life), which brings home to you the parallel lives of them both. One private, denying himself fulfilment, and the other flamboyant and outrageous, but both their lives dominated by the love of another man and their work.
When I last saw this play I found it very difficult to fully comprehend everything that was going on. Second time round, it has became more clear, but it is still a complex play that demands complete attention if you are to fully grasp what is happening. (Knowledge of Latin would be most helpful!)
John Wood, who starred in the original production, repeats his performance as the elderly A E Housman with great skill and touching sentimentality as he flickers from painful memories to joyous ones. Yet again, it is a phenomenal performance that is a joy to witness. Ben Porter, as the young Housman, is also impressive and convincing, but he does not bring the same vulnerability to the part as Paul Rhys had done in the role last year.
The play has again received favourable reviews from the popular press. NICHOLAS de JONGH of THE EVENING STANDARD says, "The Invention of Love still comes over as a tremendous work of theatrical imagination." MICHAEL BILLINGTON of THE GUARDIAN says, "I emerged deeply moved by Stoppard's pervasive sense of life's fragility and mystery." PAUL TAYLOR of THE INDEPENDENT said of John Wood, "In him, the pyrotechnical speeches find the perfect instrument."
This is an intelligent and beautifully crafted play by Tom Stoppard that is a must for those who like intellectual stimulation. It is not an easy night out at the theatre, but with some effort on your part it could be an awarding evening.