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“An incredible, brave, opposite-of-televisual choice of play”The Daily Telegraph
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“A first-rate cast perform with terrific pace, zest and dexterity”The Independent
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 diplomat Henry 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.
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.
Tom Stoppard is indisputably a genius, both as a playwright and as a, well, genius — but sometimes I secretly yearn to say to him what the Martians told Woody Allen in Stardust Memories: that I enjoy his works, “particularly the early, funny ones”. Travesties (1974) is prime early, funny Stoppard. It’s improbable but true that James Joyce, Lenin and the Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara were all in Zurich at the same time during the first world war (so was Einstein; thank goodness Stoppard didn’t go too far). This is his cue, and in particular a minor incident, namely Joyce’s feud with British consular official Henry Carr resulting from an amateur production of The Importance of Being Earnest. From these raw materials he creates an intricate fretwork of political and philosophical exchanges, jokes so densely packed that when you laugh at one you miss the next three, stylistic fireworks and general high jinks involving an Englishman, an Irishman, a Russian and a Romanian. Sometimes Stoppard’s pulpit-bashing impulse pokes out too far: Carr is a thoroughly unreliable narrator (he keeps referring to Joyce as Phyllis, Janice etc) but, paradoxically, a fairly consistent authorial surrogate when pronouncing on art or politics. Luckily, after a deliberately slow and sombre start, and despite some low-key playing choices at times, Patrick Marber’s production allows the clever humour the upper hand. Various scenes take place entirely in limericks, patter-song, Ulysses-ese and even Russian, and a good half of the playing time consists of pastiches of Earnest, with cucumber sandwiches flung around with abandon. At the centre of it all is Tom Hollander’s Carr, a far more masterly performance than he lets on as he alternates between doddering and an obsession with the tailoring of trousers. (No, it all makes a kind of sense, really.) He is ably supported by Freddie Fox as a playfully attractive Tzara, Forbes Masson as an oddly Welsh-sounding Lenin and Peter McDonald who becomes the spitting image of Deirdre . . . I mean Bridget . . . I mean Joyce. It’s the perfect Stoppardian mix of the intellectually heavy and the soufflé-light.
Brace yourself. Tom Stoppard's 1974 play achieves the near impossible. Set in Zurich, 1917, when Switzerland, or the "still wheel of war", was brimful of artists, writers and revolutionaries, it mashes together the ideas that shaped much of the last century and, at the same time, has fun. Yes, fun. Fun with a Lenin (Forbes Masson) who is on the cusp of seeing his Russian revolution actually happen, anti-art artist Tristan Tzara (Freddie Fox) just as he founds the iconoclastic Dadaist movement, and James Joyce (Peter McDonald) who is writing his monumental book, Ulysses. Into this setting, Stoppard casts another lesser known historical fact - among the British consulate's staff in Zurich at that time was one Henry Carr (Tom Hollander in superb, supercilious form) who in the mind of Stoppard - or rather his misremembering version of Carr - fraternised with and occasionally spied on the above 20th-century titans (especially Lenin of course) and at the behest of Joyce was persuaded to act in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Now, for most people all this would have amounted to little more than a series of interesting historical footnotes. For Stoppard, they are the trigger to a play that explores the ideas of the thinkers that populate it; culminating in a dazzling verbal duel about the value of art between Fox's fizzing Tzara and the unbeatable brilliance of Joyce. And then - and this is where it has me incredulously shaking my head at the sheer audacity of all - it hijacks the plot of Importance, while matching and even exceeding the wit of Wilde. Patrick Marber's production negotiates all this and more with the nimbleness of a principal ballerina, though the Stoppardian ability to exhilarate the mind and then devastate the emotions, never quite materialises.