Review: Secret Thoughts

A comedy that strains the brain


This is an engaging tangle of sex, lies and qualia.

Yes, qualia. Secret Thoughts is a high-brow romantic comedy, concerned not just with lust between academics, but also the issue of objectively defining personal experiences.

Philosophers spend an awful lot of time grappling with the self-evident truth that we do not really know what is going on in other people's minds. And "qualia" is the word they use, apparently, to describe subjective sensory experiences, such as the smell of coffee or seeing a clear blue sky. So this is a play about qualia, and sex.

It started life as a novel called Thinks… by David Lodge, but he has stripped it down for the stage to two central characters.

Professor Ralph Messenger (Rob Edwards) is a rising star of TV and lecture theatre, with a wealthy wife and a weekend cottage. He is also a philanderer.

Helen Read (Kate Coogan) is a novelist and the new girl on campus, on a one-term visit to teach creative writing, lonely, imprisoned in a tiny university flat and grieving over the sudden death of her husband.

The play focuses on the thrill of the chase, both sexual and intellectual, as Messenger woos her with his philosophical discourse and rugged good looks. She counters his pragmatic take on life with a more emotional approach.

There may be a bit of the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus about all this, but it is certainly not dumbed-down - rather the opposite. It is all rather cerebral and introspective. It teeters on the edge of becoming just a tad too academic, then redeems itself with some down-to-earth rudeness, which may, I suspect, be a little too direct for some audiences.

And, although there is a lot of qualia floating around, Lodge does, for the most part, break down the clever stuff into digestible chunks.

Helen has her desk on one side of the stage and taps away at her laptop, recording her thoughts, many of them projected onto a huge overhead screen. Messenger, on the other side, records his thoughts on an old-fashioned Dictaphone as an academic exercise.

The symbolism - left and right hemispheres of the brain, male and female, rational and emotional - is clear. And Lodge cleverly builds up a further series of opposites as the play unfolds - truth and lies, celibacy and infidelity, lust and love, science and art, Catholicism and atheism, loyalty and betrayal, the list goes on. Both characters are trying to understand themselves, but will they ever understand each other?

Lodge collaborated with director David Thacker in staging this world premiere. It is, by his own admission, "a rather intellectual piece, a play of words". But it works because the content is stimulating, the chemistry between the two actors powerful, and the stage presentation, complete with a steaming hot tub, effective.

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