by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Patrick Marber
Designed by Tim Hatley
Menier Chocolate Factory, London
Sunday 6th November 2016, 14.30
Tom Hollander – Henry Carr
Freddie Fox – Tristan Tzara
Forbes Masson – Lenin
Peter McDonald- James Joyce
Amy Morgan – Gwendolen
Clare Foster – Cecily
Sarah Quist – Nadya
Tim Wallers – Bennett
For this play at least, the Menier Chocolate Factory has abandoned its stage along the long side of a narrow rectangle (it was sometimes like watching tennis) and installed a very efficient and practical layout with the audience in an L-shape around two sides of a square stage. It works really well.
Tom Hollander as Henry Carr
It’s Zurich, 1917. Tom Stoppard discovered that an obscure British consular official had taken part in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by James Joyce for the English Players. There was a court case, and Joyce got his revenge by putting “Henry Carr” into Ulysses. In Ulysses, Henry Carr is a stroppy private soldier, incensed that the “bugger insulted the King.” The real Henry Carr’s boss at the consulate was called Bennett, and in Stoppard’s play, he becomes Carr’s servant, secretly feeding information to the Bolsheviks. Bennett also gets a mention in Ulysses … Carr’s last line is “God fuck Bennett.”
At the same time (roughly) Zurich was home to V.I. Lenin, and Tristan Tzara, the Dadaist. From these acorns he grew the play, based around Henry Carr’s half-remembered, embroidered memories of the time – Carr is a geriatric at the start and finish, and Travesties was written in 1974, so takes place about then. The programme notes that Tom Stoppard made some minor cuts for this production, restored some stuff cut in 1974 and wrote a few new lines, so it is a revised version.
Stoppard might have squeezed in Albert Einstein (though he left Zurich in 1914 for Berlin … 1917 was the Theory of Relativity year). In 1917 Dr. Carl Jung from Zurich was the doctor-commandant of a camp for British internees in Switzerland, but face it, having Lenin, Joyce and Tzara in one play in one place was quite enough.
Henry Carr in Algernon mode (Tom Hollander) and Cecily (Clare Foster)
The play has parallels and extracts from The Importance of Being Earnest throughout, all confused by Carr’s memories. Gwendolen (Amy Morgan) is his sister, or maybe not, transcribing Ulysses (“his dirty book”) for Joyce. Cecily (Clare Foster) is a Bolshevik librarian, sympathetic to Lenin. Or they might just both be Wilde’s characters. One of the funniest points of the play is re-enacting the Gwendolen/ Cecily bitchy tea scene, but done as a musical. To keep the theme of “travesty” it is Gwendolen filling Cecily’s cup with unwanted sugar, so the reverse of the original. Both Clare Foster and Amy Morgan excel, as they would in any production of the original.
Gwendolen (Amy Morgan) and Cecily (Clare Foster) sing their way through the tea scene. James Joyce on guitar.
Instead of confusion over a handbag, we have confusion over a library ticket and an early accidental swop of a chapter of James Joyce’s book with a chapter by Lenin on Art and Socialism, instead of Miss Prism’s swop of baby Earnest with a chapter from her romantic novel. Henry is playing Algernon though he always calls him “the other one.” Henry pretends to be Tristan’s brother, Jack. Henry confuses Joyce’s surname with several other female first names, referring him to Deirdre and other names.
Tom Hollander as the “old” Henry Carr
Tom Hollander’s central role must a major part of the play’s fastest sell-out ever at the Menier … it moves to the Apollo theatre in the West End in February for a twelve week run. Apart from the sitcom Rev he was in The Night Manager perhaps the most gripping TV mini series of the year. He was why we booked, plus I knew about the high reputation of Travesties and have always wanted to see it. He is a marvellous actor. We’ve seen a lot of care homes this year, and he gets the geriatric Henry Carr almost surreally accurate. Then he’s the chippy official playing Algernon. The thing is, Henry’s only interested in his costumes. Two costume changes is the promise that gets him to do the part. Even his First World War trench experiences … he got a “Blighty wound” and ended up in Switzerland … are described in terms of the damage caused to his collection of trousers. One of his main objections to Joyce is that Joyce wears part of a blue suit with part of a brown suit. Seeing Tom Hollander that close at he Menier was a tremendous theatrical experience.
Tristan Tzara (Freddie Fox) and Henry Carr (Tom Hollander)
A high point for me was from Clare Foster’s Cecily … the Lenins are always hanging around the library. Nadya (Mrs Lenin) races in with news that revolution has broken out in St. Petersburg. They scream excitedly at each other in Russian, while Cecily provides a running translation with mounting excitement building into ecstasy. Characters get accused of being pedantic in the script, so let me have a go. St Petersburg is a slip. St. Petersburg was renamed Petrogad in 1914, so as to eradicate the German elements of its Russian name … Sankt and burg. OK, sorry, I bet most people outside retained the older name. However, so much of the play is “too clever by half” with its puns and limericks and references, that I’ll be “too clever by three-quarters.”
Freddie Fox as Tristan Tzara
Freddie Fox creates a memorable Tristan Tzara. Tzara is fond of cut-ups, where you scissor a poem or text to create a random event poem. He does it with Shakespeare’s Sonnet Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day. When it emerges from his hat in bits and Gwendolen reads it, the lines make some sort of sense and are funny, leaving me wondering if Stoppard really did assemble words from the sonnet, and I’d guess he did. Joyce puts on a hat which Tzara has filled with cuts out, and they remain stuck to him for the rest of the play. It happens as he’s exiting, so he switched to a jacket with stuck on bits off stage.
Peter McDonald as James Joyce. Lenin (Forbes Masson) and Cecily (Clare Foster) behind
Both Peter McDonald as James Joyce and Forbes Masson as Lenin look exactly how the real ones looked. Both are very funny, and recordings exist of Joyce and though it’s years since I heard one, the slight, modified Irish sounded how I remember too. I love the idea of James Joyce singing Galway Bay. One of the many theatrical stand outs is Joyce producing a live white rabbit from a small felt hat.
James Joyce, Ulysses / Arp’s portrait of Tristan Tzara, 1916 / Imperialism by V.I. Lenin / Copy of Oscar Wilde’s plays (as used by Jack Worthing) / Shakespeare’s Sonnets
In spite of such a brilliant production, with terrific performances all round, I have a few lingering doubts about Travesties.
I guess much theatre is intrinsically elitist. Many, or most, of us fail to get all the classical references in Shakespeare or Milton. However, something like Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth does not rely on an intellectual and knowledgeable audience. As chance has it, I’m familiar with a lot of the references in Travesties, though I’ll bet I missed dozens of others. I’ve seen The Importance of Being Earnest many times, done lights on it, played in it. That’s the easy one. But I once had to do a third year course on “The One Party State” as well as political philosophy, and I still have my little Progress Publishing Moscow copy of V.I. Lenin’s Imperialism and I have read it. I’ve read Ulysses and not just the rude bits. Though I probably folded over the page and showed the rude bits to others. I’ve seen a Mayakovsky play, The Bath-house, done the publicity for it, and even done a short story about Mayakovsky. I’m interested in DaDa. My dad dragged me to lots of Gilbert & Sullivan. So I’m by chance better equipped than most on allusions, but even then there was a bit of Latin quote that had two people in front of us roaring with laughter but which I didn’t get at all. Travesties really does aim itself at an intellectual audience, so to my mind, is inevitably a highly elitist play. I expect V.I. Lenin might have agreed with me. Some of the gales of laughter are self-congratulatory.
cartoon by H.D. Herneman, Private Eye #1438, 24 February – 9th March 2017
Is there a line between “dazzling wit” (a description of this play elsewhere) and “showing off”? Stoppard is aware of this in the fun he has with Wilde-style epigrams here … Wilde was “showing off” in every play. Maybe it’s just part of the Wilde pastiche, or maybe it’s intellectual showing-off. I did the collage above, and my companion said, “Ah, now you’re showing-off.”
I look at those five star and four star reviews. Yes, five for the acting and direction and set. It was screamingly funny at times, but the integral self-congratulation aspect of the text itself takes off a star for me.
In London in 2017. Book now!
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID:
Dominic Cavendish, Telegraph – *****
Kate Kellaway, Observer *****
Michael Billington, Guardian ****
Paul Taylor, Independent – ****
Ian Shuttleworth, Financial Times ****
LINKS ON THIS BLOG:
Arcadia, English Touring Theatre
The Beaux Stratagem, National Theatre (additional dramaturgy)
The Beaux Stratagem, National Theatre (Cherry)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bath 2016 (Egeus, Peter Quince)
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios (Hastings)
Macbeth (Trafalgar Studios), Banquo
The Ruling Class, Trafalgar Studio (Matthew Peake. Mrs Treadwell, McKyle)