Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 24, 2018
Travesties by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Patrick Marber. Set and costume design by Tim Hatley. Lighting design by Neil Austin. Sound design and original music by Adam Cork. Hair and wig design by David Brian Brown. Movement by Polly Bennett. Cast: Tom Hollander, Peter McDonald, Seth Numrich, Dan Butler, Scarlett Strallen, Sara Topham, Opal Alladin, and Patrick Kerr.
This is the Stoppard of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, The Real Inspector Hound, and After Magritte, and not of the more heavy-going The Coast of Utopia or Rock n' Roll. It is an effervescent dance of puns, quips, double entendres, antic surrealism, and literary allusions that fly about like an accidentally-launched bundle of fireworks, all the while asking us to consider serious questions about the nature of art, revolution, and the role of those who make and define both.
Entering into the world of Travesties is to dive into the misaligned and confused memories of one Henry Carr, a low-level British diplomat in Zurich in 1917, who says quite frankly of himself that his constant digressions are "the saving grace of senile reminiscence." Carr, whose befuddled version of events is what unfolds before us, is played by Tom Hollander, repeating his Olivier-nominated performance that comes by way of London's Menier Chocolate Factory and a West End production. Director Patrick Marber and another member of the London cast, Peter McDonald, join him. And while the rest of the actors are new to this production, they have certainly drunk the Kool-Aid and are completely immersed in the topsy-turvy world that is a reflection of Carr's deeply skewed recollections and Stoppard's giddy playfulness.
Stoppard imagines a time when the Irish novelist and poet James Joyce (Mr. McDonald); Tristan Tzara (Seth Numrich), a founder of the Dada art/anti-art movement; and Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, are all in Zurich, where they periodically interact with one another and with Carr himself. But since our narrator also conjures up "memories" of interacting with two women from Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (Sara Topham as Cecily and Scarlett Strallen as Gwendolen), you'll need to take the whole thing with rather more than a grain of salt.
To attempt to describe the play's actual content would be an excursion into folly, but as staged here, Travesties has the look and feel of a farce, with characters appearing and disappearing in and out of doors, cubbies, and around corners like the smile of the Cheshire Cat (Lewis Carroll being one of the many literary sources that are referenced). All of the mayhem takes place across, around, and through Tim Hatley's expansive set design that simultaneously represents a library and Carr's living quarters. The place is stockpiled with books, though these bear no titles but are all white, as if representing Carr's thoughts that have gone completely astray.
The tone is set at the opening. We are in a library, where Cecily is working as a librarian. Her admonitions to "Shh" and a sign reading "Ruhe Bite" are completely ignored as Tzara takes a piece of writing, cuts it into scraps, scrambles them up, and reads each bit aloud in a Dadaist act of creating a poem. "Eel ate enormous appletzara" is how it starts. Meanwhile, James Joyce is sitting with his secretary, Gwendolen, dictating a section of his magnum opus "Ulysses" that begins, "Deshill holles eamus." And then, who should pop in but Lenin and his wife Nadya (Opal Alladin), speaking in Russian, of course. Unless you are a scholar with a very particular bent of study, it is unlikely the first minutes of the play will be anything other than an excursion to the Tower of Babel.
Tom Hollander as Carr presides over the madness as if he were the only sane one in the room, while Seth Numrich's Tzara bounces around the stage like a yapping terrier on proscribed mood-enhancing drugs (which, come to think of it, is an apt description of the production as a whole). Ms. Topham and Ms. Strallen come into their own with a magnificent battle of wits played out to the tune of the old vaudeville song associated with the team of Gallagher and Shean. And picture Carr and Tzara morphing into the characters of Jack and his conveniently-imagined "brother," Earnest, from Oscar Wilde's play.
The truth is, there is a lot going on, and it never lets up. Patrick Marber tosses in everything he can dig out from his own bag of directorial tricks to keep things moving at a breakneck speed. For what it's worth, you have my blessing to rest your mind at various intervals, because no matter where you rejoin, there will be some bit of awesome insanity to keep your head in an endless spin. Later, however, when you think about it some more, you will come to realize that the real Tristan Tzara and the Dadaist movement, the real James Joyce and the impact of his contributions to literature, and the real Lenin and the aftermath of the Russian Revolution were every bit as unpredictable and mind-boggling as the play you have just seen.