16 February 2017
At one point in this smart and thoughtful production, avant-garde poet Tristan Tzara dismissively quips ‘It may be nonsense, but at least it’s not clever nonsense.’
Travesties features a fair amount of nonsense, but more importantly, it is also remarkably clever; by the time you leave you will feel like your brain has done a thousand sudokus.
It is set in 1917 Zurich, where in one of those remarkable quirks of history, the city was home to James Joyce, anti-art scholar Tristan Tzara, and the then unknown Vladimir Lenin.
It is unlikely that the three ever so much as shared a block of Gruyère together but thanks to Stoppard’s old and unreliable narrator, Henry Carr, he has license to construct a complex and meaningful play that weaves together political and artistic themes.
Through bringing together three such disparate characters, Stoppard conducts a debate about the meaning of art – namely what it is and whether it is any good.
Traditionalist Carr, therefore, argues ferociously with renegade Tzara and class-conscious Lenin. It is clear that Stoppard has a dog in this fight. Carr’s spirited defence of the power and importance of artistic genius could have come from Stoppard’s tongue but he gives a fair hearing to all sides, which makes for an exhilarating and thought-provoking production.
Carr also quarrels with Joyce about some unpaid debts, alongside trying to woo his radical and kind-hearted librarian Cicely. The play borrows liberally from Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, whilst also dabbling in wordplay, limericks, sporadic Russian and song.
Whilst the surrealism occasionally went a bit far for me, it is clear that Stoppard is a true master of the verbal form. Even if many and references jokes go over your head (as I am sure happened to me!), many more will land.
The cast makes superb work of this complex dialogue. Tom Hollander is both funny and touching in his younger and older portrayals of Henry Carr. He injects a real sense of vulnerability into a mischievous narcissist and fantasist, backed up with some razor sharp comic timing.
There is also excellent support from Tim Wallers as Carr’s revolutionary butler as well as a double act of strong comic roles; Clare Foster’s Cecily and Amy Morgan’s Gwendolen, who get to enjoy a wonderful duet. Having said that, I had a few quibbles with Forbes Masson’s Lenin; at times he sounded more from Motherwell than Moscow.
Patrick Marber, who based on the programme notes has a genuine love for this play, directs it with flair, whilst the simple set provides multiple nooks and crannies for people to hide and emerge.
At a time when the role of the arts is as hotly discussed as ever, Stoppard’s play could not be timelier. Travesties both baffles and intrigues; a masterful piece of writing that will leave you thinking all the way home.