After Magritte, by Tom Stoppard

April 28, 2013 at 22:22 (Book Reviews, Comedy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Theatrical Plays) (, , )




Tom Stoppard’s humour is not necessarily of the zinger-punchline sort. He tends to be wry and ironic; but evidently the overly pronounced surrealism in After Magritte persuaded him to let loose just a little bit, and there are passages in here to elicit more than the occasional snort of laughter or satisfied chuckle. It goes without saying that the dialogue is razor sharp; and the characters, constructed in such a short time, will remain memorable and distinct even after speeding into and out of the reader’s attention. More tellingly, they are more than just props with which to adorn a clever repartee. Not a lot more (there simply isn’t time or space for that), but Stoppard skirts around the edges of pathos and offers up the vaguest hints of elaborate and unlikely backstories. He demonstrates very well how successfully a single uttered word at the right time can speak volumes for a character’s motivations, general attitudes, and inclinations.

“You can’t find your search warrant!”

-After Magritte

It is not necessary to be familiar with or even aware of RenĂ© Magritte’s work to thoroughly enjoy this play, although certain set-pieces and tangential features will seem like a little wasted space as a consequence. If a criticism is to be made, it is that the exposition and the build-up to the play’s climax are proportionally a little too long for the conclusion, which is remarkably sudden and brief. Despite this perceived imbalance, the ending is not at all unsatisfying, and at risk of charging Stoppard with conceit, makes some nicely subtle references towards Magritte’s own theories of art.

Unlike Stoppard’s more famous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, this play is markedly more straightforward and simple to understand, for all that it is a surrealist nod to a surrealist icon. For that reason alone although it might not be the ideal entry point into his catalogue, it would certainly not be a bad place to start for a reader investigating all of the well-deserved hubub around this renowned writer.

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Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard

January 20, 2011 at 03:05 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Theatrical Plays) (, , , , , , )


Tom Stoppard is far too clever for his own good. This is an iceberg of a play, with a monumental cusp jutting into full view, and the plain and obvious truth that there is much more beneath the surface, daring readers to dash their ships against it in vain effort to decode the layers of meaning. Quite simply, it is certainly not necessary to completely understand what exactly is happening in this play, in order to thoroughly enjoy it. MIT students of thermodynamics might find an additional half dozen layers of meaning, and scientific postulating in these pages; and perhaps they are there. But quite apart from Tom Stoppard’s genius, and the nine tenths that lurk beneath the surface ready to shred the hulls of readers sailing too close, this play is beautiful.

The link between 1809 and 1993 is immaculately laid out, with revelations doled out in small enough quantities to titilate and delight readers, instead of shock or surprise. There is an air of familiarity in characters we have only just met, and a cloak of mystery over names we know, with the 1809-1812 scenes having above all the feeling of a half-remembered dream. Stoppard is in no hurry to enlighten his readers, and handles his creations lovingly and with gentle humour. Even with those he destroys or ruins, there is nothing jarring or sudden; only a sense of melancholy nostalgia, and a lingering desire to reread the play immediately.

Septimus Hodge is a delightful Oscar Wilde character; the drawling, untouchable, debonair and dapper young gentleman: he is chillingly re-rendered as the Genius of the Place, with the implied atrophy of everything dashing and polite about his character, and the clear impression that his gradual changes and development are absolutely genuine and true to life. If an intelligent, witty and handsome philosopher ever came apart at the seams and turned into a haunted hermit, it would surely look exactly like this. Thomasina admirably fills the emptiness of Hannah’s character, and seems to speak with Stoppard’s own voice, providing direction for the narrative, and a central core for the story, all the while remaining blind to her own fate and at least half blind to the various infidelities and submerged ploys and plots of those around her; a delightful and appealing combination. Altogether flawless, and a truly beautiful and symmetric read.

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By the Bog of Cats, by Marina Carr

July 21, 2010 at 14:44 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Theatrical Plays) (, , , , )


Certainly a very eerie and dark play, depicting a much closer and more detailed look at the Medea story, which makes it much more personable than the original legend. Rather than a handful of heroes without discernible motives we are treated to a little backstory and some characters who are considerably more relatable than a mad queen and a quasi-divine adventurer. The death of “Medea” at the end was a bold choice…and may have been the wrong choice. Her escape in Euripides contributes to the impotence and emasculation of Jason, and in itself is a curious paradox of utter resolution and an utter lack of the same; her escape being her ultimate exit from Jason’s life and world, yet without blood to cleanse his unsatisfied retribution.

“…there’s two Hester Swanes, one that is decent and very fond of ya despite your callow treatment of me. And the other Hester, well, she could slide a knife down your face, carve ya up and not bat an eyelid.”

-By the Bog of Cats

Carthage was a much more sympathetic character than I was prepared to believe in, but his murderous backstory, delivered subtly a few acts in was both jarring and a nice tie-in to Jason’s own hidden sins. In spite of the long shadow that the original Greek casts over this play, it certainly stands alone as a serious and respectable work of literature with the recasting expertly done.

Perhaps this play rattled a little fast towards its end, but with the outcome almost a foregone conclusion this may have been just as well, and enough time was certainly given for the reader to linger on the dazzlingly iconic scenes of Hester bursting in with her wedding dress, or screaming defiance beside her burning house. A thrilling read.

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