Some of the audience will leave Travesties feeling clever, others amused, many confused, while, others, like me, a bit irritated by all the guffawing at anything and everything clever-sounding.
Reviewing the audience rather than show is always risky, but it’s an important point to chew over when the play is a dusted-off version of Sir Tom’s 1974 Travesties. The play is framed as fragmented outpourings from the failing mind of its semi-fictional protagonist, Henry Carr, the British consulate in Zurich in 1917, who misremembers encounters with Dada pioneer Tristan Tzara, James Joyce and Lenin. The pompous toff’s revolutionary rememberings bleed into his own performance as Algernon in Joyce’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest, which did indeed result in a law case over the cost of a pair of trousers and an inclusion in Ulysses for thee real-life Carr. And so, in the hands of ‘our greatest living playwright’ we are thrust at a breakneck pace through a forest of dazzling wordplay, literary parody and allusion, along with exchanges in Russian, musical interludes, scenes from Shakespeare and, oh, so, so much more.
It’s, like, a totally meta and ultra erudite intellectual arm wrestle between the political, artistic and literary revolutionaries who were to help shape the 20th century about the value and purpose of art. With funnies. And there’s no denying it’s hilarious. There’s no denying its cleverness. Travesties is way cleverer than most of us and it’s way cleverer than most of its audience, including those rolling in aisles at every passing literary allusion. But in what looks to be a debate about the possibility of art and even the very possibility and value of revolution itself, the self-conscious postmodernism of its fragmented structure feels like a fallacy.
Stoppard admits to having no affinity with conceptual art and, at one point, clearly comes down on the side of Joyce, as he roasts Tzara in a verbal jousting match before literally pulling a rabbit out of his hat. Any debate about the value of individual artistic genius seems dead in the water in a play that is so dazzling even a seasoned, sober regular theatregoer can’t hope to keep up, but pretends they can.
It’s like Stoppard’s in the background in his laurel wreath taking a bow every time something super-clever is said. And with a final bow, he hermetically seals the debate into a box with handful of intelligentsia destined to effect very little beyond the confines of the theatre its performed in. It’s one great ideological impasse. And I don’t doubt for a second Sir Tom is fully aware. And I’m cross that I’m cross about a play being too good and too intelligent.
It’s a good job this pitch-perfect production can keep up, at least. Out in front of the restrained, paper-strewn set, gently mirroring the ephemeral act of creation and its wanton destruction, Tom Hollander has the wit, intelligence, ease and lightness of touch to make Carr a loveable relic. In lesser hands, he could be facetious mess. And he’s keep on his toes by the enviously strong cast. Freddie Fox positively fizzes as Tzara, and Clare Foster (Cecily), Amy Morgan (Gwendolen) and Tim Wallers as the bolshevik-sympathising Champagne-pilfering butler (Bolinger bolshevik, Champagne socialist, geddit?) are first-rate scene stealers. The sound is spot on, too, from drawing room drama bell rings to musical interludes. Travesties is truly one well-crafted beast.
Director Patrick Marber obviously loves this stuff and breathes a warmth and humanity into the high-art hijinx that stops the whole lot becoming clinically cliquey and insufferable. Yes, Travesties is triumph, but I do kind of hate myself for loving it quite so much.
Travesties is on until 19th November 2016 at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Click here for more details.