What strikes you first when you enter Trinity College’s Old Combination Room is its majesty: the high ceiling and walls are adorned with a plethora of portraits which ooze history; the usual Cambridge combination of Earls and Lords. It seems fitting, then, that Trinity’s LGBT+ Society, 1TQ, would produce its first play within it, based around the life of Trinity Fellow A. E. Housman. This isn’t your average biography though; written with the acidic humour of Tom Stoppard, it begins with the death of protagonist. Housman, double cast by Sam Groom as his older incarnation and Seth Kruger as the younger, travels the River Styx with Charon and presents his own past. One of the glories of the play, of which I saw only a taster, during that fateful final weekend before the play opens on Wednesday, is the mix of classical references and a genuinely touching story which never errs on the side of the sentimental thanks to a classic, if less read, Stoppard script. The less famous nature of Invention is a factor that was often commented upon to me by the cast and the production team, but seems a natural strength: the jokes are fresh, the witty repartee bouncing across the room.
The play is underpinned by sexuality. The play is largely set in Housman’s undergraduate days in the late nineteenth century and recounts his life-long unrequited love for his fellow classmate, Moses Jackson, played by Jack Harding. Housman’s stilted silences and repression is counterpointed by Oscar Wilde’s (Mini Smith) presence in the play, as flamboyant and simmering with intelligence as you could wish from any Wilde. Much of the second act is concerned with Wilde’s infamous trial, which saw his eventual incarceration under the homophobic Crime Amendment Act of 1890. Yaseen Kader, who plays Alfred William Pollard, commented to me that the love story at the centre of the play was poignant, but that the piece is just as concerned with what can only be described as niche classical references to texts, some of which are pretty obscure, and the state of Oxford University in the late Victorian period. Stoppard, at his most erudite, never concerns himself with sentimentalising.
As well as Wilde, Walter Pater (David Tremain) John Ruskin (Adam Butler-Rushton, who is also double cast as Henry Labouchère) and Jerome K. Jerome (Juliette Simon) are among the famous faces who spend much of their time discussing and arguing over such erudite matters as, for instance, the nature of Greek and Latin translation, with one character, the Master of Balliol College, proclaiming: ‘If you cannot write Latin and Greek verse how can you hope to be of any use in the world?’ In short, the play is as interested in Classical textual criticism (Housman was a Latin academic as well as poet) as it is in love. The interest in the textual criticism was often commented upon by the cast, with one describing the play as a crash-course introduction to textual criticism. But never fear for those who feel they may lack the knowledge or interest in Classics to make it through: as he does with astrophysics in Arcadia and existentialism in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Stoppard walks you through it, lovingly, and before long you’ll be laughing at jokes about Catullus.
When in prison, Wilde wrote what is arguably considered his masterpiece, De Profundis. In it, he wrote: ‘To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development’. The Invention of Love weaves a tale which promises to explore this most universal of thoughts, that of regret. Wilde regrets nothing. Housman, who at three points in the play proclaims ‘Mo! I would have died for you but I never had the luck!’ interacts with his younger self, experiences his life again, and wonders what was worth it. Study, friendship, love–The Invention of Love shows us the interrelationship of all three, and not only the pain but the joys of them as well.
The Invention of Love will play in Trinity College’s Old Combination Room between the Wednesday (04/02/15) and Saturday (07/02/15). Tickets may be purchased via ADC ticketing; tickets sell from £6. Ticket price includes a complementary glass of wine.