BWW Review: TRAVESTIES, Menier Chocolate Factory, 4 October 2016
Wilde, Joyce, Shakespeare, Lenin, memory, the morality of war, social systems, and the meaning and purpose of art: Stoppard's dazzlingly intellectual 1974 play really is a life, the universe and everything affair. Thankfully, Patrick Marber's fleet-footed revival is equally attuned to its wit and giddy strangeness, offering a lifeline to audience members who may be nodding fervently at the line "I'm finding this conversation extremely hard to follow".
Most astonishing is that this is a stranger-than-fiction affair, just about, inspired by the bizarre convergence upon Zurich in 1917 of several pioneering figures: Lenin, eager to return to revolutionary Russia; Tristan Tzara, writing his Dadaist anti-art manifesto; and James Joyce, developing his transformative work Ulysses.
There's also a rather less august personage, minor British consular official and "friend of the famous" Henry Carr, who - like Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - is on the fringes of history. Carr was immortalised in Ulysses after he starred in Joyce's production of The Importance of Being Earnest, and subsequently took him to court for failing to compensate Carr for his lavish wardrobe.
Stoppard elides dates and details in order to unite these extraordinary figures, neatly explained by filtering the action through Carr's faulty memory, which loops, weaves and free associates. That unreliable narration liberates the form: we have an entire scene in limericks, winning song and dance breaks, delicious riffs on Joyce, Earnest parody and Wildean aphorisms, and excitable Russian translation. It's a freewheeling postmodern circus, full of daring high-wire acts, and even includes a rabbit pulled from a hat.
Thankfully, there's also strong emotional ballast. When Tzara declares that it's not just the word 'art' that's a construct, but also terms like 'patriotism' and 'honour', that touches a nerve for Carr - invalided out of the trenches, haunted by the horrors of war, and desperate to anchor it to something meaningful.
These great thinkers also argue passionately and sometimes poignantly about what art means to them, whether defending its geniuses or the need for vandals, its social conscience or its immortality. Yet Switzerland itself becomes a symbol for the self-absorption of artists who prioritise their work over political realities.
The debate is leavened by delirious comic runners. There's a sartorial thread, with the fashion-conscious Carr only persuaded to appear in Earnest when its costume changes are described to him, and Joyce's modernist leanings most horrifyingly - to Carr - apparent in his mismatching trousers and jackets. There's also alphabetising flirtation, spies and double lives, interchangeable notebooks, and 'Joyce' being confused with a string of female names.
At the centre of this absurdist game-playing is Tom Hollander, making a welcome return to theatre. His elderly Carr is shuffling and bowed, but still verbally agile, and he delivers Stoppard's bravura set-pieces with flair, yet also a warm human twinkle. Carr's all too aware of his comparative status, only of interest to people who want to know "what the great men are really like" and cast in Earnest as "the other one", but his younger self is curious, principled and quietly charismatic.
There's sprightly interplay between Hollander and Tim Wallers' loquacious butler, and fizzing turns from Freddie Fox's livewire Tzara, hurling torn poems from his hat just as he proudly upends the status quo; Amy Morgan and Clare Foster, who reprise Wilde's Gwendolen/Cecily confrontation as a marvellous passive aggressive duet; Forbes Masson's fervid Lenin, grasping at farcical plans to sneak back into Russia, and Sarah Quist in fine voice as his wife; and Peter McDonald's stirringly heartfelt James Joyce.
Tim Hatley's paper-strewn set has a dreamlike aesthetic, aided by superb lighting from Neil Austin, which follows and accentuates the trails of Carr's thoughts and reminiscences. If a demanding night at the theatre - akin to attending a philosophy tutorial in three different languages, while riding a unicycle and juggling cats - it's also an awe-inspiring one. The Menier run is sold out; a West End transfer is a no-brainer for this brainiest and giddiest of plays.
Photo credit: Johan Persson