Monday, 17 October 2016

Travesties

A glorious shaggy-dog story with Tom Hollander delivering a priceless performance as a diplomatic buffoon

Written by Ian Shuttlesworth
Three snapshots from theatre history: (1) in Zurich during the First World War, the English Players staged an amateur production of The Importance of Being Earnest, which led to a legal feud between the company’s business manager, James Joyce, and a minor British consular official named Henry Carr.

(2) In 1974, Tom Stoppard used (1) as the basis for his play Travesties. Also in Zurich at the time, and in the play, are Lenin and the Romanian Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara.ian

(3) In 1984, I made my first appearance on a student stage as Joyce in (2).

The last is, of course, the most momentous, but we’re concerned here with the latest revival of travesties, which stars Tom Hollander as Carr. Hollander’s title role in the TV sitcom Rev has made him beloved and cuddly, so he relishes the chance here to play a buffoon and a git. Old Carr is constantly misremembering things – calling Joyce ‘Phyllis’, ‘Janice’ and so on – and turning his memories into scenes from Earnest (around half the play is Wildean Pastiche); young Carr is a preening fop obsessed with the tailoring of trousers. Meanwhile, Joyce is writing Ulysses and trying to scrounge a few Bob, Tzara is creating cut-up poems by pulling words out of a hat, and Lenin is getting ready to board the train to Petrograd. It’s a great shaggy-dog story about an Englishman, an Irishman, a Russian and a Romanian (or a Bulgarian: ‘they are the same place,’ says Carr airily whilst disguised as Tzara; ‘some people call it the one, some the other’).

Being a Stoppard play, these assorted high jinks mash up with profound debates about art and politics. Sir Tom has never been able to digest these easily into his works, but in this early play he takes far greater care to sugar the pill. Consequently, artistic freedom is described as like having a chit from matron at public school and early Communist factions are listed during a striptease routine. This exuberant balancing of the serious and the silly is one of  Patrick Marber’s long suits as a director; here, he often keeps things low-key, allowing absurdities to emerge more or less naturally. Other scenes are written in patter-song, in Ulysses- ese and even entirely in limericks.

Forbes Masson is an impassioned Lenin; Freddie Fox makes Tzara every bit as engaging as Algy in Earnest; and Peter Mcdonald is, damn his bottle-bottom-bespectacled eyes, a far better Joyce than I ever was.

Until 19 November at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1: 020-7378 1713, www.menierchocolatefactory.com 



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