FringeReview UK 2017
Tom Stoppard’s 1974 Travesties is revived by Patrick Marber, transferring from the Chocolate Factory to the Apollo. It’s revised by Stoppard himself. Tim Hatley’s slate-grey Zurich library with crisp 1917 clothing to match hero Henry Carr’s sartorial obsessions. Neil Austin’s lighting spotlights antics throughout, and Adam Cork’s music and sound invokes period music. Till April 29th.
Patrick Marber’s magnificent revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1974 Travesties comes with one of Marber’s re-writes, here effected by Stoppard himself. These amount to a couple of additions and more cuts – that’s something we’ve seen a bit of recently in literary dramas: plays like Stephen Jeffrey’s 1994 The Libertine. The playwright trims before anyone else does. Either way, we get a kind of premiere now Travesties transfers from Chocolate Menier to the Apollo. It’s spruce too, this fantasia on 1917 Zurich’s collision of art and politics. It allows just enough information – Cicely’s Leninist lecture for instance – to feel vertiginous and not horizontal. It’s still cerebral champagne.
Tim Hatley’s slate-grey Zurich library with lectern and assorted chairs crunches with paper underfoot. There’s crisp 1917 clothing to match hero Henry Carr’s sartorial obsessions: it’s a submerged analogue of his torn clothing, lying three days in No-Man’s Land. Neil Austin’s lighting does for Carr’s drawing room once alluded to as a separate set, spotlighting antics throughout, and Adam Cork’s music and sound invokes period music like a wound-up charm.
Tom Hollander’s real-life ex-Consular attaché Carr shambles on before the curtains in a hat as distrait as his memory– perfectly feasible in 1974. It’s this trope, fallibility, that allows Carr to jumble dates around 1917, creating a filter as fantastical as The Importance of Being Ernest, a real production where he plays ‘the other one’ Algernon. Thus he conflates in a dream-play his theatrical business manager, Peter McDonald’s sinewy limerick-licking James Joyce, Freddie Fox’s Amadeus-like Tristan Tzara founder of Dada and Lenin – Forbes Masson’s directional bull; all shake their ideological fists at each other, particularly Joyce and Tzara – but Carr’s own ferocious defence of his war to Tzara is its emotional analogue: colourful invective ends in ‘intellectual Balkan turd’.
Joyce’s argument by comparison pays homage to the Jesuistical inquistions of his own work. With McDonald, Joyce’s icily light dismissal of Tzara: ‘you are an over-excited little man’, nevertheless preludes his oration of the artist as magician, the need for immortality in events: ‘what survives as art’. Underneath this withering is the play‘s heart.
Old Carr modestly asserts (with a simple pin out of Eliot’s 1917 Prufrock) he influenced them all; he could have stopped Lenin from sparking the Revolution. What isn’t in doubt is that Joyce and he row over expenses, later going to court. War temporarily renders Zurich the artistic and political melting-pot of Europe; Carr’s remembering squint recreates it all, because it’s a squint time – modernism best slants through his eyes, not Tzara’s monocle.
All this cast boggle with a brilliant distraction; their timing, gymnastics, sheer fizz remind us what physical as well as intellectual brio this work-out of a masterpiece exacts. Hollander dominates: hoarse with age he drops back into his twitchy youth with a kind of shy mischief. Sartorially restless he refracts everything through clothes he’s loved and lost, torn in a shell-hole. Each time he asks Bennett the Marxist butler (Tim Wallers glinting as a hard-left Jeeves) what the newspapers say, he inflects a little more boredom, though the original Carr, the incomparable John Wood, made a feature of it. Hollander’s pithy haplessness or occasionally decision remakes this role just as the text itself’s been overhauled.
Stoppard’s sympathies are clearly with Joyce, the precise careful modernist. But just as Carr ends up insulted in Ulysses, mainly written here, Stoppard’s happy to reverse the gesture through Carr’s faltering. Joyce beginning in limericks ends with a passionate defence of cogent disordering, Gwendoline his acolyte scurrying to check words. Stoppard vindicates his precise damning of Tzara’s mere expression. McDonnell moves from self-parodying Irishry to granitic assurance.
Increasingly the scenes remoulded of The Importance shape everything we see, librarian Cicely and Carr’s sister Gwendoline’s confrontation played out as Carr and Tzara really pay court to them. The surprise is Joyce as a kind of Lady Augusta Bracknell cauterising wild declarations – though not Cicely’s determined ravishment of Carr behind a stack, Clare Foster superb in registers of ardent or amusedly prim. It’s made clear though that Joyce’s middle name by confusion was Augusta. That James Augusta Joyce should really have been involved in The Importance shows a playwright firing on all happenstances.
That doesn’t quite erase all stasis, that ultimately it’s a drama questioning the word, particularly latterly when Lenin, slightly detached comes to the fore (his earlier turn on mandolin accompanying Sonnet 18 is a new highlight). Having denounced literature not following the party, Masson ensures leaden details of Lenin’s escape and Carr’s havering are as riveting as they can be. Nadya his wife launches the more engaging history of their escape, Sarah Quist’s robust loyalty infectious.
Stoppard’s brilliance in avoiding this mostly lies in his choice of hommage, laying down rhythms of The Importance, of the Joyce pastiche in Joyce’s mouth, turning all these balletically to badinage – the pattering between Cicely and Amy Morgan’s Gwendoline beautifully wrought: neatly, disciples of Lenin and Joyce. ‘But our intellectual differences are an insuperable barrier’ they lob at their men.
Not being present at the legendary 1974 production it’s difficult to compare exactly, refracted through memories of those who were. But together with textual revisions making this a newly-definitive production, with the cast re-moulding it and above all Hollander’s superbly faltering diffidence, this is the outstanding revival of a play in the West End this season.