The first time I saw a Tom Stoppard play was in 1976 on a school expedition to London to see Dirty Linen at the Arts Theatre. I sat next to Andy (you’ll know him as A. N.) Wilson; now a highly regarded author, columnist and social commentator, then a mere English teacher just about to get his first book published. Mr Wilson and Mr Ritchie (our other English teacher on this jaunt) were huge fans of Stoppard and were itching to see this new play, and not unreasonably thought their A level English students would appreciate the experience too. It was a success. A few months later they took us to see the National Theatre revival of Stoppard’s Jumpers too, which I thought was absolutely ace.
Two years before all this, Stoppard wrote Travesties. I reckon that if I’d seen a production of Travesties at the same time, I wouldn’t have had a Scooby – it would have sailed way over my head, in the direction of the second star on the right, straight on till morning. I did get the playtext for Christmas that year; and I think it reads a little more easily out of the book than it actually appears on stage, because you have the time to take in Stoppard’s verbal fireworks and re-read them to understand them better. But watching Patrick Marber’s excellent revival at the Menier made me realise what a difficult play it really is.
All these early Stoppard works relied heavily on his brilliant wordplay and sense of nonsense. He loved to depict stories from a weird angle – like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on stage when they should be off (and vice versa) or The Real Inspector Hound, seen from the view of the theatre critic who accidentally gets involved in the show. Every Good Boy Deserves Favour even needs a full orchestra to perform it. R&G and Hound also have the common theme of containing a play within a play; and Travesties too has some of the same elements, wrapping Henry Carr’s recollections of his youth in with an amateur production of The Importance of Being Earnest.
It must have been something of a gift for Stoppard to discover that Lenin, Joyce and Dadaist movement founder Tristan Tzara were all living in Zürich in 1917. So was little known consular official Henry Carr, who – to pass the time of day, presumably – joined an acting troupe called The English Players, whose business manager was the (ironically not very English) James Joyce. The play is set in the present (i.e. 1974) with an elderly Carr (he actually died in 1962 but who’s counting) reminiscing about his past and the extraordinary minds with whom he shared his Zürich days. But what is the purpose of the play, I asked myself, during the interval, and afterwards? There must be something more to it than just an exercise for Stoppard to show off his considerable verbal dexterity, or an example of how you can mash up a new play and an old play and not see the join. Apart from little glimpses into individual folly – like Joyce’s inability to match a jacket and trouser, or Tzara’s foppish use of a monocle when he had perfect eyesight – I couldn’t really identify the driving force behind this play.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. In fact, as productions go, I can’t imagine how you would play this better than the way it’s currently packing them in at the Menier. Tim Hatley’s design involves the remnants and loose pages of seemingly thousands of books, scattered to invoke both a busy library and a Dadaist approach to literature. Hidden false panels create opportunities for those outside to look in, library steps enable the action to take place on several levels in an otherwise confined space. There are also a few outrageously incongruent and surreal sequences when the whole thing turns song-and-dance like in The Ruling Class or something by Joan Littlewood. Personally, I find that kind of surreal breakout a tad tedious; what worked in the 60s and 70s doesn’t necessarily always work today.
But if ever there were perfect casting it must come in the form of Tom Hollander as Henry Carr. On his first entrance, you can’t help but be impressed at how Mr Hollander can bend himself down double to create the most elderly looking wretch imaginable as Carr Snr. With Dickensian dressing gown and warbly voice in place, he takes us through one of Stoppard’s longest and frankly self-indulgent prologue speeches as he introduces us to the glitterati of 1917 Zürich. And then, when he flips into Carr Jnr, he becomes a slightly pompous Everyman character; keen to take a good place in society, revelling in the fame and notoriety of his contemporaries, pretending to be more involved in their political and artistic movements than he really is, and willing to play Algernon if the trousers are right. He’s hardly ever off the stage and it’s a thoroughly demanding and terrific performance.
The rest of the cast give Mr Hollander excellent support – for me the best was Clare Foster as Cecily. We’ve seen her a couple of times, most recently as a stunning Sarah Brown in Chichester’s Guys and Dolls, and here once again she is outstanding. With her clear-cut voice and amazingly expressive face she can cheerfully deride and humiliate anyone who’s noisy in the library; and her hilarious set pieces with Amy Morgan’s Gwendolen are just remarkable. Freddie Fox was also very good as the faux-refined and show-offy Tzara, with a nice sense of comic timing and a good stage presence; and Peter McDonald made the best of the laconic opportunities Stoppard provides to make fun of Joyce’s irascible eccentricities.
It’s like a most intricate serving of super deluxe candy floss. Utterly delicious to look at, and incredibly sweet to consume, but once it’s gone, it’s gone. Does it inform the human condition? No. Is it an opportunity for Stoppard to look erudite and swish? Yes. Is it entertaining? Yes, providing you can survive its occasional longueurs.
Production photos by Johan Persson