“An incredible, brave, opposite-of-televisual choice of play”
The good fortunes of the Menier Chocolate Factory’s revival of this golden oldie from the Tom Stoppard back-catalogue – sold out before its opening night – owe not a little to the twinkly-eyed presence in the cast of Tom Hollander.
This year, the much-loved actor has attracted new fans and neatly overturned many people’s assumptions about his cosy gentility (an inevitable by-product of his unmissable self-penned sitcom Rev) by playing Hugh Laurie’s distinctly unholy side-kick “Corky” in The Night Manager.
It’s great to see him back on the stage after six years away, and what an incredible, brave, opposite-of-televisual choice of play with which to return. When people need to know why Sir Tom is now widely regarded as the brainiest – and best – living playwright in the land, they need simply refer themselves to this cryptic-crossword of a modern classic.
Stoppard’s award-winning 1974 comedy finds the man who memorably described himself as “a bounced Czech” performing such high-wire feats of linguistic daring that he even undertakes an entire scene in the limerick form. And that’s not the half of it: there are exchanges in Russian, outbreaks of nonsense, a super-abundance of allusions, word-play and parodies, and to crown it all a running pastiche of The Importance of Being Earnest.
Stoppard’s fiction was inspired by a real-life performance of Wilde’s play that James Joyce helped to stage in Zurich in 1918. A British consular official called Henry Carr tackled the role of Algernon but quarrelled with the Irishman. This petty spat, which led to a derisive inclusion of this footnote-figure in Joyce’s modernist masterpiece Ulysses, is recalled by a now-aged Carr.
Here is no linear plod down memory lane, though: the erratic Carr mind becomes a postmodern playground, on which also are conjured the avant-gardist Tristan Tzara, a founder of Dada-ism, and Lenin, who, like Tzara, was also to be found in that neutral Swiss haven in during the war.
Those who lack even a nodding acquaintance with Importance may find themselves swiftly bamboozled as the conversation between Carr and his Jeeves-ish servant Bennett slides into ventriloquised Wildean epigrams. And, later, copying Wilde’s romantic plot of adopted personae, Tzara wooes Carr’s sister Gwendolen as “Jack” and Carr wooes Zurich librarian Cecily in the adopted radical guise of Tzara.
In lesser hands, such overload could be insufferable. With this gang, displaying the finesse of accomplished farceurs on Tim Hatley’s paper-strewn period set, The artifice is fleet, funny and hooks you in even as you pant to keep up. Director Patrick Marber has teased out the emotional substance lurking in the high-falutin’ carry-on about the value of revolutionary art.
Although Hollander plays Carr to the comic hilt, absent of gaze, laughably conscious of couture, almost the philistine-fool, a key mood-switch reveals him as a Great War survivor struggling to assert some semblance of belief in order in the face of engulfing meaninglessness. And for all that the others run rings around him, the weight of that sad time, shattering politics and art, is what they are all, in their own ways, staggering under too.
It’s impossible to do full justice to the cast but Freddie Fox shines as the insolent Tzara, Peter McDonald is spot-on as an ineptly dressed Joyce (even magicking a rabbit from his hat), and the sung-through showdown between Clare Foster’s Cecily and Amy Morgan’s Gwendolen, a barbed conversational exchange familiar to Wilde lovers but here reprised as if in some demented dream, is alone worth a wait in the returns queue. A West End transfer must be on the cards – anything less would be a travesty.
Author: Dominic Cavendish
“An impeccably constructed – or deconstructed – literary romp. A tonic from start to finish”
Early Tom Stoppard plays are having a stage flutter. First Travesties (1974); soon, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966) at the Old Vic. Both peculiarly prescient. Not just for Stoppard’s juggling, tumbling, cavorting vocabulary, but for his challenge to form. Looking at history through the eyes of minor characters. Mixing fact and fiction: the new biography that casts all in doubt.
Stoppard was struck by the real-life story of Henry Wilfred Carr, who in 1917 worked at the British consulate in Zurich. Carr was directed by James Joyce in The Importance of Being Earnest and, after a wrangle with the author, was given a cameo role in Ulysses.Stoppard began to assemble a kaleidoscopic history featuring the Dadaist Tristan Tzara and Lenin, who had also stayed in the city. Discovering that not all the dates fitted, he decided that Carr, recalling the action as an old man, should be losing his memory.
Patrick Marber’s whirligig production, first seen at the Menier Chocolate Factory last autumn, spins from one literary form to another, like a wind machine sending fragments into the air. Only the Russian revolutionary material, more laboriously spelled out, slows the speed. Travesties is too diminishing for Stoppard’s allusions and parodies. There is dialogue made out of limericks and a glittering spoof on Wilde: Clare Foster shines as a jolly-hockey-sticks ingenue. Joyce comes in for some leg-pulling on account of his name: Carr calls him Deirdre.
Embedded in this is a theatrical argument about the point of art. Carr has been in the trenches. He regards artists at a time of war as living in a perpetual Switzerland. Tzara, in a passage so strikingly 21st-century I had to check it had not been inserted, makes a case for conceptual art. Lenin demands social usefulness. Stoppard’s heart may be with Joyce’s hopes that literature might supply a touch of the everlasting, but the play cleverly nods to the Dadaists (“What did you do in the war Dada?”) in the apparent scattiness of its form. Tom Hollander is wonderful as Carr: potty, vain and suddenly flushed with despair. As Tzara, Freddie Fox takes his acting into a heady new dimension. He is all elastic gleam.
Author: Susannah Clapp
"The crackling intelligence is infectious"
“A first-rate cast perform with terrific pace, zest and dexterity”
There’s a famous Monty Python sketch that parodies the show-off competitive effort of coining negligent Wildean epigrams: “There is only one thing worse than playing squash together, and that is playing it by yourself,” quips Graham Chapman’s Oscar somewhat desperately, causing a lull in the sycophantic, mechanical laughter of the entourage. I’m ashamed to admit that this sketch has briefly popped into my mind on the two previous occasions that I have seen Tom Stoppard's 1974 play Travesties which, among other marvels, offers a running pastiche of The Importance of Being Earnest. Not here, though, as I watched Patrick Marber’s utterly scintillating revival at the Menier. The play has been pruned, though there are a couple of new bits, and the first-rate cast perform the intellectual vaudeville with terrific pace, zest and dexterity. The display of cleverness and erudition is unremitting, to be sure, but it comes across as winningly rampant rather than cumulatively wearisome.
Travesties seizes on the coincidence that, in 1917, neutral Zurich was haven to James Joyce, Tristan Tzara, founder of the anti-art Dadaist movement and Lenin biding his time. Stoppard hypothesises that these figures knew one another and his master-stroke is to present their supposed Earnest-mirroring encounters – and the resulting debates about the nature of art and its relationship with revolution –- through the distinctly dodgy reminiscences, in old age, of Henry Carr, then a minor official at the British consulate. We know that Carr played Algernon in Joyce’s amateur production of Wilde’s play and that he sued the author of Ulysses for the cost of a pair of trousers. Around this nugget of undignified fact, the play weaves its web of mischievous speculation.
Tom Hollander is superbly funny and, at times, fleetingly sad as Carr in both doddery anecdotage and dapper youth. He has the slightly mad twinkle of the incorrigible fantasist who needs to believe that he’s at the centre of things. On the one hand, he’s a philistine joke-figure with his hilarious weakness for wardrobe (perking up perceptibly at the assurance that the role of Algernon involves two complete changes of costume) and with his unerring way of backing the wrong horse in any bets about the political future. But his view that art and artists are absurdly overrated is voiced with the scathing wit – “to be an artist at all is like living in Switzerland during a world war. To be an artist in Zurich in 1917, implies a degree of self-absorption that would have glazed over the eyes of Narcissus” – of a man who has known trench warfare, however briefly and to the detriment of his natty uniform.
Freddie Fox excels as the radical flamboyantly flouncing Tzara while Peter McDonald’s dour, deliciously comic Joyce is very moving when he put the apolitical case for the artist as a magician put amongst men to gratify capriciously “their urge for immortality”. The great advantage of putting the entire proceedings in Carr’s wayward mind is that it gives the play massive freedom of manoeuvre. There are sequences delivered entirely in limericks; the tiff between Gwendolen and Clare Foster’s consummately funny Cecily reimagines the tetchy tea-party scene in Earnest as an absurd “Mr Gallagher and Mr Shean” sung duet.
Played on Tim Hatley’s paper-strewn set and with the bright ping of a receptionist’s bell announcing each alternatively remembered sequence, Marber’s ace production revels in the play’s riotous plenty – though with rigorous discipline and no hint of a cast enjoying themselves more than the public. A travesty of justice if it does not transfer to the West End.
Author: Paul Taylor
Tom Hollander delights audiences in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties at the Apollo Theatre
Travesties, directed by Patrick Marber, follows the memories and adventures of real-life English diplomatHenry Carr (played by Hollander) in Switzerland during the First World War.
During this time, Carr met James Joyce when he was writing Ulysses, Tristan Tzara during the rise of Dada, and Lenin leading up to the Russian Revolution, as all were living in Zürich.
Carr’s memories are recounted through a production of Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest in which he had a starring role.
Stoppard uses this production and Carr’s mixed feelings surrounding it as a framework to explore art, the war and revolution.