Friday, 7 October 2016

Theatre review: Travesties

Taking a few moments out from writing and directing everything at the National, Patrick Marber pops a bit further down the South Bank to the Menier to direct a revival of one of Tom Stoppard's better-known plays. Travesties is a treatise on the meaning and relevance of art, for its own sake or as a commentary on the state of the world, through the medium of a sometimes silly comedy seen through the muddled memory of a retired civil servant. Henry Carr (Tom Hollander) is a doddering figure reminiscing about his days working at the British Consulate in Zurich during the First World War, neutral Switzerland a strange kind of calm in the middle of Europe's chaos. As a result it's a focal point for artists and political thinkers, and Carr has dealings with James Joyce, the Dadaist Tristan Tzara, and the exiled Lenin.

But these flashbacks are seen through the older Carr's memory and, having performed in The Importance of Being Earnest around that time, he casts that play's Gwendolen and Cecily (Amy Morgan and Clare Foster) in them, blurring Wilde's story with his own life.


Vanessa said she overheard someone saying in the interval that the play's flaw is that Tom Stoppard is showing off how clever he is which... well it's a Tom Stoppard play so yes, that's basically what they are. Maybe it's the fact that Earnest is such a well-known play that makes it especially obvious what the playwright's doing when he blends historical figures into it, as opposed to when his references are so esoteric they go completely over everyone's heads. In any case as always with Stoppard it's impossible to completely relax into the story as the cleverness always draws attention to itself, but at least here's there's a lot of elements that succeed regardless.


A good cast certainly doesn't hurt, Hollander an expert at this kind of English pomposity punctuated by confusion as the story gets mixed up around him. while Freddie Fox gets the chance to steal the show regularly as the flamboyant Romanian artist Tzara, his affected monocle and ridiculous Count Dracula accent disappearing - as do all the strong accents - as Carr's genuine memories turn into a made-up narrative. The comedy uses all kinds of wordplay and songs - the arrival of Joyce (Peter McDonald) results in a scene written entirely in limericks, and the fact that his name sounds like a maiden aunt (never mind his middle name being Augusta) becomes a running joke (although contrary to what someone told me, knowledge of Joyce's literally filthy love letters didn't prove relevant.)


Forbes Masson's Lenin doesn't get quite as much opportunity to make an impact - assigned to try and spy on him, Carr failed miserably and so didn't get to know him as well as he pretends - but Foster has a lot of fun in a scene where Cecily translates from the Russian, increasingly unnecessarily, for the audience. Tim Hatley's corner thrust stage is a dusty library of torn paper that makes for a fitting setting for the confusion on stage. There's no denying there's a lot of entertaining scenes and this is a very good production of the play, but I can't pretend this isn't diluted as always by the complexity of the writing being flagged up so eagerly.

Travesties by Tom Stoppard is booking until the 19th of November at the Menier Chocolate Factory (returns only.)

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

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