Upstairs for the show, we presented our blank tickets and the usherette said, 'There's two of you? Oh dear. I'll get you a plastic stool, you're beside Tom Stoppard.'
Margie said she'd sit elsewhere and she went away and left me to it.
I sat gingerly beside him, and on the other side of him Margaret Throsby greeted me. Soon he was in the conversation. He remembered meeting me before when I'd asked him why he'd refused to do a libretto for Sondheim, because he 'hated his music', and he looked a little cornered.' Not hate,' he said. 'But he's not my favourite composer.'
I told him of playing Bennett in Travesties in a Gielgud accent, which I demonstrated, and the live white rabbit with whom I would sit backstage communing as we waited in the dark for our cues. He seemed sorry not to have seen our amateur production, and confessed he hadn't seen the STC production either, and I said Biggins was very good in it. 'This is why I'm here,' he said, 'to see him in this Revue. I hear he's excellent.' I said this was my ninth viewing of it, and the Wharf Revue was 'my spare religion'. He was very gentle, polite and unassuming, very English, not at all pretentious. His great classic head, though (like Robert Graves he resembles a Roman emperor), daunted intimate chat, and the show began.
He laughed at the boxing tent sketch, the Brecht-style circus song, and shared everyone's delight when Rudd, half-masked like the Phantom of the Opera, lured Gillard into his dank basement and singing hugely began her torture.
But then the Keating-Hawke sketch, in which they plot in wheelchairs the 'restructuring' of their nursing home, commenced and he didn't know who they were, and began to nod off. With the lightest of touch to his sleeve, I woke him, and he dutifully laughed again. Whenever a song began, he immediately dropped off, jet-lag having revived in him a lullaby-trigger from his infancy, I suppose. Excruciatingly embarrassed, I kept waking him. He liked very much what he saw, the King Lear Murdoch tragedy in particular, and the French Revolution one, though he dropped off in the Les Miz martial anthem at the end ('The best of times, the worst of times or both of the above') he thought absolutely stunning.
Afterwards we talked a bit, and he met the actors and told them they were brilliant, and got his taxi, having the night before walked a mile back to his hotel for want of one.
I will go today to see Biggins interview him in the Opera House. Watching him sitting alone in the restaurant reading, it occurred to me how much better he is as a theatre technician than Harold Pinter, whom I judge now a sluggardly tosser beside him. Stoppard does the work. He puts in the time. He does the research, the weeks in the library, forcing acres of reading down into his epigrams. I recalled Bob Carr asking him what it was about Shakespeare and he said, 'A simultaneous compression of language and expansion of meaning.' And he of course has this too.
What a lovely accidental privilege it was to spend those two hours in his company, I thought, recalling other encounters with eminent Englishmen -- John Osborne, John Mortimer, Howard Brenton, D.M. Thomas, Trevor Griffiths, Ian McEwan, Bruce Chatwin, Ian Richardson, Derek Jacobi, Donald Sinden, Simon Callow, Christopher Hitchens, Ken Branagh, John Lennon -- and how their unassuming politeness, their almost automatic egalitarianism, their almost defensive, post-imperial humility, surprised me likewise.
Stoppard, though, had a further dimension. A Czech national, a Hong Kong colonial, a lately self-discovered Jew with Auschwitz-dead close relatives, a dabbler in mathematics, a student of Soviet torture, a Tory Party adviser, a Thatcher knight, a Beckett fan, a fellow-traveller in the moral philosophy of A.J. Ayers and MI6, a passionate, practising cricketer and lover of rock 'n' roll, he summed up in his Jaggerish visage and tumbling cascade of references the glorious, vast and agonised multiculture of twentieth century Europe and its writers and its ideologies and murders and fads and its accumulated learning, and it was good to brush sleeves with this in the dark, and awaken him now and then to our own best theatre writing, just this once.
I should have told him all that but I, too, was a little shy.
And so it goes.