Tom Stoppard, Travesties (Director: Patrick Marber, Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue)
As I’m sure I’ve written before, I fell out of love with theatre thanks to Nottingham Playhouse’s patronising use of social realist dramas. My few returns to theatre, aside from Hobson’s Choice and Glen Garry Glen Ross, seem to have been Shakespeare. But there have been the odd Stoppard — the original production of Arcadia (I also saw Hapgood) and the Chichester revival of The Real Inspector Hound. I’d read Travesties thirty years ago, but I’d never seen it until now.
It’s a play that sort of demonstrates what we “know” about Stoppard. He cares more about ideas than people. He’s not a radical playwright. He’s too clever for his own good.
Certainly I overheard conversations in the interval and after the curtain in which audience members declared they didn’t understand it. “Great acting, great production, but I don’t think I understand it.”
Stoppard’s jumping off point is the fact that Lenin, Joyce and Tzara were all in Zurich in 1917. He presents these through the memories of the British Consul… the assistant British Consul… an assistant British Consul… Henry Carr, from about fifty years later. Carr is an unreliable narrator, which gets around the dates not quite working, the minor anachronisms. Joyce, in the middle of writing Ulysses, invites Carr to play Algie in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest, which led to lawsuits being exchanged between the two of them. Lenin, meanwhile, is waiting for revolution in Russia and trying to work out how to get across Germany to Petrograd. And Tzara, having just “invented” Dadaism, has fallen in love with Carr’s sister.
Each of the three great men are given chances to make speeches about their ideas and argue with Carr — the role of art, the role of the artist, the place of the the revolutionary, whether man can live on bread alone when he cannot live on art. I guess the confusion comes in when you try to work out where Stoppard stands, as a playwright who seems to be more about ideas than social change. Given some of his plays and television work about Czechoslovakia and the Soviet bloc, and an interview with him some thirty years ago, you’d assume his sympathies are not with Lenin. But then Stoppard asserted that he had to play fair and give Lenin some decent lines. And his major opponent is Carr, who pretty well emerges as a jerk. For that matter, I recall seeing some left wing playwrights who are similarly dialogic.
There is the glorious level of intertextuality — The Importance of Being Ernest, of course, although I thought there were more quotations, a few sequences that are indebted to the catechism chapter of Ulysses (which I probably didn’t catch in the 1980s) — as well as playing with limericks and poems, translations, and so forth. The start of the second half has a very clever (and rude) joke with Joyce dictating the ending of Ulysses. There are cut ups of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets and sequences which break into song and dance. Sometimes, I fear, I cringed a little, but there’s a Brechtian playfulness that recurs.
There are a couple of other texts that haunt it — there’s the Orson Welles cuckoo clock speech from The Third Man which you’d think would be alluded to in a conversation about war, peace and Switzerland and the dress and make-up of sister Gwendolyn and librarian Cecily seem to anticipate the play with twins in Hapgood.
It might be the strength of the acting, but you do care for the characters. Tom Hollander plays Carr as old man and young, and his comic timing and height feel spot on. His opening speech, more or less, is a three page soliloquy, which is hitting the ground running after some added silent business. The actor playing the butler, Bennett, almost steals his scenes, with some radical comments I think have been added to the script since 1974. Cecily (Clare Foster) and Gwendolyn (Amy Morgan) have a thankless first half, but come into focus in the second. The play isn’t just about the men — although only the men are famous. Cecily teeters on the edge of feminist or political killjoy — Carr declares her a pedant — but this allows her to name the play. The original exchange between the two women was in verse, but here it is played in song (with Joyce on mandolin).
Of course, it is hard to understand on some levels — the need of art to be political or not to be art is not resolved, but then you wouldn’t expect it to be. Because it isn’t resolvable.
Let’s end with one odd twist: Freddie Fox, of the Fox dynasty, is Tzara — initially Romanian, but quickly English as he shades into an The Importance of Being Ernest character. In 1974 he was played by John Hurt. I’m not sure I can quite imagine that.