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A Conversation with Director Patrick Marber

On April 21, 2018, Patrick Marber spoke about Travesties with Education Dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company's lecture series.

An edited transcript follows:

(There are spoilers below)

Ted Sod: Hello. First, I apologize for this acute laryngitis you are listening to. I'm just hoping there are a lot of Harvey Fierstein fans out there. I swear to you, I had a voice yesterday. Patrick Marber is on his way. He told me he might be a wee bit late, but this is a perfect opportunity for me to introduce myself for those of you who have never been to a lecture before. I'm Ted Sod. I'm the education department's dramaturg here at Roundabout, which means I do a fair amount of research about the shows we produce.

A Conversation with Director Patrick Marber
Playwright Tom Stoppard

I want to tell you a little bit about the playwright Tom Stoppard and the production history of this show. When Patrick gets here, we'll talk about the specifics of his work. This play premiered in 1974 at the Royal Shakespeare Company. It came to New York in 1975 and won the 1976 Tony Award for best play. Tom Stoppard was not quite 40 years old when he wrote it. He's going to be 81 this year. It's fascinating that a youngish Tom was writing about an older man who is losing his memory. Now, of course, he's an older man, who may or may not be dealing with the vagaries of memory.

It's often a surprise to some people when they learn that this exceptional British writer - one of the foremost British playwrights - is actually Czechoslovakian. His real name was Tomas Straussler. This story I am about to recount should be made into a movie because it is rather compelling. Stoppard's father, Eugene, was a doctor who worked for the Bata Shoe Company in Zlin, which was known as a "shoe town." On the eve of Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia, the owner of Bata sent the physicians out of the country. He made a choice to send the Jewish doctors and their families out of the country. So, Tom, his brother Peter, and his mother Martha, were all sent to Singapore. His father went at a different time. There are a number of theories as to how Tom's father died. He either died as a Japanese prisoner of war or he was drowned on a boat bombed by the Japanese. Either way, Tom made his way to England with his mother and brother in 1945 or '46 after his mother married a British Army major, Kenneth Stoppard, who gave his new sons his surname. He told his stepsons, "I am giving you the greatest gift anyone will ever give you - I am making you British." Young Tom Stoppard evidently did not care for the schools he went to. He went to the Dolphin and Pocklington Schools. He has no formal university education. When you look at his oeuvre, when you look at the body of work he's created - whether it's the films Shakespeare in Love or Brazil, or his stage and radio plays - it's just astounding. He started as a journalist and was a theater critic for a brief time.

Travesties is a brilliant work that speaks for itself. This piece introduces us to so many stylistic influences, interpersonal relationships, fictional and real characters, riffs on Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, ideas about revolution, theories about the meaning and value of art - everything is being foisted at us at such a pace that anybody could be forgiven for saying, "Wait, Tom, stop -- can I just think about that for two seconds?" I am sure many of you are still trying to sort it all out. The worst thing you can do to yourself with a Stoppard play like this is to make yourself feel stupid. People walk up to me and say, "I gave myself a D-." The play is for you to appreciate however you appreciate it. So, if you've given yourself a D- today -- you're not alone. Let's put it that way.

What's really marvelous about this piece, for me, is his use of language. In this era of tweeting and texting - listening to this language today made me quite deliriously happy. I also love the idea that Stoppard is a voracious reader and he was inspired to write this play because he came upon the arcane fact that James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin and Tristan Tzara were all in Zurich at the same time. The person who connected them all was Henry Carr. Carr was also a real person who worked at the British Consulate. Stoppard knew very little about Carr at the time he started writing Travesties, but what he did find out was that Joyce had been the business manager for the English Players, an acting troupe based in Zurich and their first production The Importance of Being Earnest --- in which Carr played Algernon. Carr got miffed because he felt Joyce gave him money that was prenegotiated "as if it were a tip." There was a law suit and a countersuit. Carr sued for the cost of the costume he had BOUGHT for himself to wear in the production and, I believe, Joyce sued him for slander. Can you imagine being the trial lawyer? They both lost, but Joyce had the last word, because he created a minor character based on Carr in his opus Ulysses -- which he was writing at the time he was in Zurich and which was published in 1922 -- and it's not an attractive portrayal.

Zurich at the time the play takes place was also the cradle of Dadaism. The way the Dadaists supposedly came up with that name is that Tristan Tzara -- whose real name was Samuel Rosenstock -- took a pen knife and stabbed it into a French dictionary and the word he stabbed was "dada", which is the colloquial term in French for a hobby horse.

And here is Patrick. Hello! How are you? This is Patrick Marber, who directed this extraordinary revival of Travesties.

Patrick Marber: Nice to see you.

TS: Thank you for coming, Patrick. I woke up this morning sounding like Mercedes McCambridge in The Exorcist. It's ridiculous, right? Anyway, I've been giving the audience some background information on the play and Sir Tom. And now I am going to stop. You're much more prepared to do that. But before I do stop, I want to tell you that Patrick is also a playwright. We've done two of his plays here at Roundabout. We did his plays Howard Katzaround 2005 or so, and After Miss Julie during the 2009-10 season. Patrick, I wanted to start this interview by asking you to share with us your collaborative process with Sir Tom, because I know he was a major influence on you as a writer, along with Pinter. Will you talk about how you approached Stoppard about any changes you wanted him to make to the text?

PM: I was offered this play to direct at The Menier Chocolate Factory IN London in February 2016. There were two published drafts of THE play. THE 1974 original production version of the text WHICH Stoppard then republished it in 1994 in conjunction with another Royal Shakespeare Company production for which he made some cuts and changes.

Having known Tom for more than 20 years, I know that he is a fiddler with plays. There are some playwrights who write the play and then that's the text and it's done. Then there are other playwrights, Tom being one of them, who with every big revival of the play like to take another swipe at it, make a few changes, write some new jokes - adjust it.

Having read the two published texts, I said to Tom, "Look, I think there's some material in the '94 text that we could take out and some material in the '74 version I'd like to put back. How would you feel about us sitting down together and having a little conversation about what should be in the 2016 text?" He said, "Absolutely fine."

We spent five or six weeks meeting -- maybe once a week -- and discussing the play in detail, scene by scene, and working through these two different drafts. I think Tom felt quite excited by the changes. They were things that he'd always wanted to fix that he never quite got around to. And I was an enthusiastic director saying, "I'm happy to change whatever you want."

The text that you saw today isn't even the one that's published that you can buy out in the lobby. It's near to that, but it's not exactly it because we made further changes for this production.

The actors love it. It feels alive to them. Every now and then Tom will appear or send me a text message with a new line to be inserted into the play -- and I love that about Tom Stoppard - here is this revered, multi-award-winning and famous playwright who's still actively engaged with the plays that he's written - and this is a play that he wrote a long time ago - and he is still keen to do a bit more work, still keen to polish it up and change it.

A Conversation with Director Patrick Marber

Cast of Travesties. Photo by Joan Marcus.

TS: Your directorial work is astounding on this production. I really am stunned by how many different styles you have been able to make into a complete whole. Was that a challenge?

PM: It was. It's a huge challenge. It's the challenge that the play presents the director. It's a collage play. It's not like any other play I've encountered, even including the works of Tom Stoppard. It moves from different genres all the time. The single most difficult thing was designing this set, because in the published version, he says the play begins in the library. Then it moves to Henry Carr's apartment. Then at another point it returns to the library.

I was absolutely adamant that I wanted the library and apartment, which are the two main locations of the play, always to be present and for them to collapse into each other. I said to the designer, Tim Hatley, "I'(M) Willing to make a bet that almost every production of Travesties that's ever been done has always had loads of books lying around the stage. I really don't want to do that." He said, "God, that's absolutely right. What a cliché. It's a literary play, so let's throw some books on the stage."

Actually, what was the gamechanger was when Tim said, "Okay, you're not going to like this, but we're going to have books everywhere - but supposing the books are white and non-literal? Supposing they're ghost books, damaged books? Supposing they're old? Supposing they're tattered? Supposing they're everywhere, pages have come out, and the set is like the inside of Henry Carr's head: disordered and rambling, like all of our heads are, and full of paperwork, school reports, army documents, insurance policies, and books - the detritus of human life." I thought, yes, I really relate to this. If you go to my office in London, it's something like this. I'd like to think it's a bit more organized than this, unless we're very efficient - we all have this messy paperwork in our lives.

It's a good metaphor for where the character is at, and I feel it's something the audience can relate to. So, we ended up with this. That really solved most of the problems in staging the play, because I could do fast scenes, comic scenes, romantic scenes, spying scenes and dramatic scenes. It was all contained.

It took a while to establish what color the set would be. At one point it was going to be this, but it was going to be mirrored. Then it was going to be white, cream, and black. Eventually we settled for a First World War, slightly military kind of gray. We didn't want to lose the feeling of the war, because we thought that's so important in this play. The protagonist is haunted by his memories of the war. We didn't want to lose that. That's why we built up and up - almost trenches of books. At one point Joyce refers to them as temples.

We have this set that does what the play does: It can become different things at different times. It was really Tim Hatley, a brilliant designer, who did a lot of the work for me - but that's what a brilliant designer does. They get inside the play and help you direct it.

TS: I love when Tom Hollander ascends this piece of furniture over there. Was that always part of the design - it gives Tom - who I believe is 5'6" -- the opportunity to make himself taller.

PM: It wasn't specifically designed to elevate him. It is just one of those things you'd find in a library -- library steps. I think the library steps existed before we cast Tom. It was great that Tom could use them to comic effect. It wouldn't be so funny to see a tall man climbing up those steps. There's no point. But we got a lot of fun out of it.

TS: I also want to talk a bit about The Importance of Being Earnest because of the many riffs Stoppard does on it. How did you approach that? Did you have your cast read the original play first?

PM: Yes, we played a fun game in rehearsals, where the cast sat around this very table. We put that bell you hear in the middle of the table. We read The Importance of Being Earnest with everyone playing their parts. Tom (Henry Carr) was Algernon. Seth (Tzara) was Jack. Scarlett and Sara were Gwendolen and Cecily. Peter (Joyce) played Lady Bracknell. That's the character he's supposed to be.

The game was that you read your part and every time there's a reference to The Importance of Being Earnest, either a direct or indirect quote, you bang the bell. That really taught us just how much there was. There are whole passages where there are no references in Travesties to Earnestand then other bits where it's just ding, ding, ding. It was very useful to do that. It was in everyone's bloodstream and we never spoke of it again.

Stoppard, of course, had done this before. He'd done it with his first play, where Hamlet is streamed through the play of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. So, it's not altogether surprising that he would have the same idea twice, but in Travesties he does it in a more complicated way.

TS: This is why I find the play so brilliant and beautifully done, because there are all these layers that start to make sense once you understand that Carr was Algernon in that infamous production of Earnest and his memory is convoluting that experience with everything else he remembers from 1917.

PM: Well, they don't always make sense...

A Conversation with Director Patrick Marber

Tom Hollander in Travesties. Photo by Joan Marcus.

TS: Okay, what doesn't make sense?

PM: It makes sense to me because I've seen the play a hundred times, but I don't think on first viewing you could hold the whole play in your hands and go, yeah, I get it. If you see it the first time, and you like it, you might want to come back. I promise that you'll get more out of it if you see it a second time. I'm still finding things that I didn't know were there and I've seen it more than a hundred times over the last two years.

It's a play that continues to delight and fascinate me and I'm still finding new moments in it. I'm still giving the actor the odd, annoying note as I make a new discovery in it and find something that's endlessly revealing. I'm still in awe of the play. I don't feel I've conquered the play. I think I've presented a version of it, but there are many other versions that could be presented. I just happened to choose a particular way of doing it that was high style, but there's another version of Travesties that could be set in a black box with very few props and be done in a much more philosophical way.

Great plays are endlessly open to interpretation, I think. I do think Travesties is a great play. When you think of Tom Stoppard's work, there are the three or four plays that get done regularly, like Rosencrantz, The Real Thing and Arcadia. Jumpers gets done a lot. But Travesties I felt had been slightly neglected because it's so difficult to find a leading actor capable of playing the role of Henry Carr. It's a once-in-a-generation part. It was created by John Wood originally and then Antony Sher did it in London. Now Tom Hollander has done it. It's a daunting prospect for any actor, knowing particularly that you've got to walk on and do a 13-minute monologue at the beginning. It's an extraordinary thing for a playwright to present to an actor.

TS: I actually saw that and more as a huge challenge. I watched your entire ensemble do these remarkable things and thought, I could never do that. The stamina it must take...

PM: Yes, it's an exhausting play to perform. They're working at a very high pitch of intensity. They're always exhausted afterwards. They're exhilarated, but it is an exhausting play.

A Conversation with Director Patrick Marber

The cast of Travesties. Photo by Joan Marcus.

TS: And these loops that he's written - I call them loops because of the repetition -- and I love that every repetition is begun by a rather loud bell ringing -- it feels so right for how we live our lives and how we remember things. Can you talk about that? Because those bells pay off in a big way.

PM: Yes, once I'd found the library bell - that being Henry's bell of memory - that was a little breakthrough moment directorially. In the text of the play, Tom Stoppard suggests it could be a cuckoo clock that keeps making the sound. I thought the thing about a cuckoo clock is it says Switzerland, but it doesn't say library, as well. I thought I'm going to give you library this time and that's going to be the bell of time and memory. Bells are good things on stage.

Tom gives you a different version of the same scene a number of different times. You see that in the scene when they speak in limericks. It kind of is the same scene as in the one where Joyce comes and says, "Hey, would you like to be in The Importance of Being Earnest?" The blocking in the scene is the same. I've staged it the same. But it's a different scene.

As you say, it gives you the feeling of how memory works - that you're not quite sure where you were when you said that thing to that person and was it really that person? Yes, I think it was. Yes, we were definitely in that cafe. No, it was a restaurant. Well, we were definitely eating. Memory plays tricks on you, and this is a play that plays tricks.

What is astonishing to me is that Tom Stoppard wrote this play in his mid-to late-30s. How did he know so much, as a sprightly young man, about how it feels to get old and find that your memory is no longer reliable? I'm 53 and my memory is certainly not reliable. How did Tom know that? How was he able to dramatize it so brilliantly?

TS: Do you want to share with us some of the revelations you've had about the play and its meaning, since you've seen it a hundred times? Anything that you want to share?

PM: Well, I'm a very - what's the word? I'm a bit of a vague director, in a way. I feel the production of a play should offer up to an audience all the possible meanings of the play, rather than say to the audience this is what this play is about. That's just the way I'm built as a reader, as a writer, and as a director. I like my art to be inconclusive.

What I've tried to do in this production is say to the audience, well, it's a war story, it's a love story, it's a literary story, it's a political story. It's a memory play It's all these things. The audience are free to go away and discuss it or not discuss it and perhaps dream about it. I want it to cast some kind of spell over them.

TS: I think you've succeeded.

PM: It's like a strange dream. I want the audience to feel comfortable that they don't get all of it, not in a pretentious way, but just because you get what you get from this play. It's unlike any other play. It's unlike any other play that's ever been written by Tom Stoppard or by anyone. I think it sits in its own "sui generis" little place in the history of modern drama. I can't think of anything else it reminds me of.

If a playwright presented this play now to an artistic director, it would be very hard to see how it would get put on. It would get developed, I fear, into being something more coherent and cogent, but the play for me is all about the ending -- the journey of the play is about a man who is convinced that he lived a particular life. What we learn by the end of the play is he didn't really live the life he's remembering. He lived a version of it, but now it's gone. I find that very moving.

TS: I was about to tell the audience when you arrived that Carr's second wife, who was his widow, wrote to Tom after the play was reviewed the first time. She was surprised to hear that her husband was a character in a play. He had to reckon with what he had invented and what had really happened. There was some difference.

PM: Yes, Henry Carr is a historical footnote for scholars, a person who appears in Ulysses in comical form. I found that very moving, that Henry Carr's main claim to fame is to be the butt of James Joyce's jokes.

TS: Do you have any idea why Joyce is buried in Zurich and not Ireland?

PM: Yes, because he died in Zurich. Henry Carr talks about it in the play. In 1940, Joyce returned to Zurich during the Second World War. He had a perforated ulcer. I guess he felt some affinity with Zurich. That's where he began work on his magnus opus.

Audience Member #1: Will you talk about the songs and music that are used?

PM: Some of them are in the play, like the song "Mr. Dooley" that Joyce sings. The song that Cecily and Gwendolen sing is a real song with different lyrics to it. Tom rewrote an existing song of the period. You can hear it on YouTube if you do a search for Gallagher and Shean. They were a musical double act -they do this very funny version of that tune. It's well worth a listen.

In the play there's also the bit where Cecily does the sexy dance on the table. That's in the play, but I used different music. The play does stipulate that there's a dance at the end. The only song I actually added was the song for when the Lenin's leave for Russia. There's a stage direction about how we hear the sound of the train. It's very loud. It's clear the playwright wants to feel the epic sweep and march of history. I thought it would be rather nice to give Nadia a moment all to herself. I thought this would support this journey to Russia, and that she would sing some sort of Russian song. Adam Cork, the composer and sound designer, took an old song and rebooted it. That's the only song I've actually added. I've done the numbers with a bit more production pizzazz than they're normally done with, but hey, it's Broadway.

TS: I was tickled when that dance of Cecily's turns into something right out of Hieronymus Bosch. Where did that come from?

PM: I wanted to use the whole company as much as possible in this production. I felt it was important that it wasn't just the Henry Carr show, but that the audience felt this whole world of people. So, I took any opportunity we had to get everyone onstage. That was an example where I could extend Cecily's individual dance to become a collective, bacchanalian, bizarre moment. It's supposed to be a point at which Henry's imagining Cecily as a sexy dancer becomes a comedic nightmare. It's like a fantasy gets invaded by something that is quite unpleasant.

A Conversation with Director Patrick Marber

Sara Topham in Travesties. Photo by Joan Marcus

Audience Member #2: Are there names for the taxidermied animals?

PM: Yes, but we could never agree on them. I always said at the beginning of every rehearsal, "Now you must name the badger and the beaver." Someone said they should be called Oscar and Tom. We never officially named them, but I think of them as Oscar and Tom. I think of Tom as the badger and Oscar as the beaver.

Audience Member #3: What is the significance of the play's title?

PM: The Working Title for the play when Tom was writing it was Prism, a reference to Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest and, of course, a prism is something through which you see different things. Tom was clearly wanting a title that didn't imply only one thing. A travesty could be lots of different things. There are lots of different kinds of travesties in the world. But I'm glad he called it Travesties and not Prism.

Audience Question #4: Could you tell us a little bit about the casting process?

PM: Yes, once I accepted the job of director, the next thing that happened was Tom Stoppard and I discussed who was going to play Henry. We drew up a list. We discussed the various names on the list. We both liked the thought of Tom Hollander playing this role, because he's a really great actor and he's a great comedian. He's also a very smart guy. He's got great intellect. He seemed perfectly qualified to play this part. So, for all those reasons, I cast all the actors - the entire cast needs to have a combination of all those traits in order be in this play.

A Conversation with Director Patrick Marber

Tom Hollander in Travesties. Photo by Joan Marcus.

TS: When I interviewed Sir Tom when he was here for a revival of The Real Thing, I asked what he looks for in casting actors and he said, "Clarity of utterance." You do a great impersonation of Sir Tom, Patrick -- are you going to share it?

PM: No, I don't do it in public.

Audience Question #5: Why were the actors speaking so fast? I couldn't hear everything.

PM: I'll tell you what we found. In an audience of 800 people watching this play, there's always going to be about 100 who don't get it at all - who just go, what the hell am I doing here? I'm watching madness on the stage. Then there are going to be about 300 who kind of get it but need to be constantly convinced. Then there's the hardcore of 400 who are loving it.

When we slowed it down to try to bring more to the party, the play wasn't as good and the hardcore supporters didn't laugh as much. They were giving off this feeling of, Oh, come on, we've got it. Feed us more. Feed us quicker. So we decided to play to the hardcore elite. Those who couldn't keep up might enjoy the challenge of keeping up and those who could keep up would really enjoy being played to in such a fashion.

I'm sorry you couldn't hear everything. You should be able to hear everything. I will investigate that with my diction police. We don't want you not to hear it, but we do want it to come at you with outrageous fury and pace.

Audience #6: Can you speak more on why Stoppard uses bits and pieces of The Importance of Being Earnest in this play?

PM: Because history presented him with the fact of the matter that Henry Carr -- who was a real person - played by Tom Hollander - was genuinely in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest in Zurich in 1917. That's a historical fact. Joyce was the business manager of the English Players. Whether Tom Stoppard would have written the play Travesties had Henry Carr been in a production of The White Devil by John Webster, I don't know.

I do know for a fact that probably Tom's favorite comedy in the world is The Importance of Being Earnest. He has a facsimile of Wilde's first draft of the play. He's a Wilde fan. Knowing Tom a bit, as I do now, I think it would have electrified him that this historical fact could be recycled. It was a way of swimming in the sea with Wilde and his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest.

TS: It's an homage.

PM: Yes, in the same way that he paid homage to Hamlet in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I'm urging him to do it again. I don't know with what play, but I like it when he writes plays around another play.

TS: Will you talk to us about the work that's coming up for you at the National in London?

PM: The next show I'm going to direct is Exit the King by Ionesco, which was done on Broadway ten years ago with Geoffrey Rush. I've done a new adaptation of it. It will open at the National Theaterin London at the end of July.

TS: Which piece of yours would you like to have come here next?

PM: Of mine? Well, there's this vague possibility of a revival of Closer, which would be nice. I wrote a new play called The Red Lion, which is a very difficult play to do here because it's about soccer. It's English soccer at a very low level, but I'm hopeful that some obscure little theater might do it. This is the first time I've worked as a director in New York since 1999, when I did Closer at the Music Box. I have to say I've loved coming back, and I want to come back more.

TS: We want you to come back.

PM: Thank you.

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