Tom Stoppard’s 1988 espionage thriller, Hapgood, addresses the insanity of the Cold War by zooming in on a band of British spies. Alongside the CIA, the group engages in crosses and double-crosses, the end result being little more than a game of chicken.
Led by Mrs. Elizabeth Hapgood, AKA Betty, AKA Mother--played by actor Elise Stone with a perfect mix of sass and sadness—the reconnaissance team’s efforts are a showcase for three distinct plot lines: The juggling of employment and child rearing responsibilities for single mothers; the temptation of forbidden love; and the competitive race for scientific knowledge between the “free world” and the Communist bloc. While the first two themes are presented with straightforward punch, the latter is muddled, perhaps emblematic of the Cold War itself. As Hapgood says near the denouement of the play, “It’s them or us. We’re keeping each other in business. We should send each other Christmas cards.”
Indeed, the inanity of the spy effort is underscored as the two-act drama unfolds. Can anyone be trusted? Is it possible to know good people from bad? As the characters assess and then reassess one another, a host of preposterous, and often funny, mishaps occur. Hapgood’s associates—Ridley (Jason O’Connell), Merryweather (Brian Costello), and Kerner (Joseph Menino)—stomp, probe, and snoop, all the while trying to determine who among them is leaking strategic military secrets to Moscow. Unfortunately, despite terrific acting and wonderful staging, this element of the plot is confusing as it intertwines numerical data—supplemented by a host of algebraic and scientific formulae that are projected onto the stage’s back wall—into the dialogue. Yes, it’s illustrative of the secrets being pursued, but the long-winded repartee gets tiresome for non-scientifically inclined audience members.
Apparently, this was of little concern to Stoppard who reportedly became obsessed with particle physics when his son was studying the subject. “Stoppard saw in physics a metaphor for human nature,” the Playbill for Hapgood explains. “Does light operate like a bullet or a wave? The answer is both—depending on whether it’s being observed or not. So too people, who have different selves sharing the one body, which appear or disappear depending on who’s looking.”
Hapgood’s exploration of duality includes all the tricks of the international spy trade—or at least the ones one might find in a John Le Carre novel. There’s blackmail, entrapment, fraud, lying, and kidnapping. At the same time, there’s also kindness, collegiality, loyalty, and love between contending parties.
Some critics have found Hapgood dated, but while the Cold War is surely over, the ongoing international quest for domination and conquest of the Middle East and Africa makes espionage as relevant today was it was decades back. That said, I would have enjoyed Hapgood more had it been pared down, with a tightened script that shifted the focus to politics rather than mathematical and scientific jargon.
Stoppard had an answer for critics like me: “I must stop compromising my plays with this whiff of social application. They must be entirely untouched by any suspicion of usefulness,” he wrote in the late 1970s. Using that criterion, Hapgood fits the bill, turning the foreign policy foibles of world governments into something that is both absurd and mildly entertaining.