Spies & particle physics. Not natural bedfellows to most people – but then, Tom Stoppard isn’t ‘most people’. This revival production of Hapgood has been tweaked ever so slightly from its original UK run in 1988, though mainly to change outdated jokes, plus one scene has been moved to make things a little clearer for the audience.
On entering Hampstead’s main auditorium you are greeted with a wall of screens, zipping between short, grainy, black & white clips. The look is modern, but retains a feel of the Cold War at the same time. Throughout the play this bank of screens is used to place the action, be it in a swimming pool, a photographer’s studio or a school rugby pitch. This is clever & striking – and reduces the need for too many props, keeping the stage uncluttered and enabling quick transitions between scenes.
Good use is made of the whole stage area, which was almost unfortunate in my case; I sat upstairs in the slips and, despite being able to move my seat, was unable to see anything that took place at the front of the stage on my side. Also, at times, the lighting makes it a little difficult to tell what’s happening and who’s actually onstage. Perhaps this was occasionally deliberate, but I found myself unable to follow bits of the plot because of it.
So, the story. Hapgood is the female spymaster, working with her team to run a Russian double agent, Kerner, who also happens to be a prominent physics professor. The opening scene is a complicated set of briefcase exchanges in a swimming pool changing room, during which some key intelligence goes missing. One hypothesis put forward is that the KGB used twins, another that one of the MI6 agents on the case has an identical twin & uses him to pass this information onto the Russians – or that their pet double agent (their ‘Joe’) is actually still working for Russia. Phew.
The idea of twins & being in two places at once that runs through the show is actually a brilliant piece of science communication on Stoppard’s part; in quantum theory, scientists postulate that particles aren’t in set places but are, in fact, constantly moving & can be in different places at the same time. At points during the play, Kerner provides snippets of science, and it is revealed that part of the project he is working on involves particle collision & designing a collider to test this. The science is never ‘in your face’ and does provide a solid foundation for the entire play. The fact that bits of quantum theory (as well as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle & the Seven Bridges of Königsberg problem) can be extracted & presented in such an accessible way is testament to Stoppard’s genius.
Lisa Dillon plays the titular role with a real verve & a genuine touch. It’s a clever move to have the only female member of cast playing a woman in a man’s world, and Dillon definitely rises to the occasion. Hapgood’s use of the PM’s direct line as a means of communication for her son from boarding school is played hilariously & in such a matter-of-fact way that you can’t help but be drawn to the character.
Gary Beadle is the brash American agent Wates; he appears to be revelling in the role. During the opening briefcase drop scene he is at a sink shaving – and somehow manages to play it straight despite the escalating ridiculousness the audience is observing. Blair is exactly how you imagine a high-ranking MI6 agent in the Cold War to be, thanks in no small amount to Tim McMullan’s expert performance.
The undeniable star of this piece is Alec Newman as Kerner. His Russian accent is flawless, and he manages to capture every facet of this complex character. He’s believable as a senior physicist, but also displays a dry humour and real pathos when these are called for. You feel his dilemma at prioritising family, country & hugely important scientific work – he wishes for a simple life but faces big decisions to try & get it.
My verdict? A piece of science theatre masquerading as a spy thriller, that’s both intelligent and entertaining.
Hapgood runs at the Hampstead Theatre until 23 January 2016. Tickets are available online and from the box office – concessions are available for students & under 30s.