Travesties at the Apollo Theatre review ****



Apollo Theatre, 13th March 2017

Right then. I clearly have to up my game. The more theatre I see the better I am at appreciating, understanding and enjoying. This is particularly the case with the great playwrights. With Will Shakespeare given a half decent director and cast I can now follow the plot, hear almost all the language and grasp, albeit in a rudimentary fashion, the dilemmas and tribulations that are presented to the characters. Until the last couple of years I freely admit it was enough just to keep up with what was going on and I was often bored. All my fault.

Elsewhere I have had some revelatory Greek experiences (not sure that came out exactly as intended), Ibsen and especially Chekhov are falling into place and the Americans, O’Neill, Williams, Miller and Albee, are all firmly on the go to list.

As for the great Britons well I am finally seeing that there is more to Pinter that menace and now I understand why Caryl Churchill is perfect in terms of form and content. And of course for we live right now in a golden age for new British theatre which only a numpty would ignore.

However, Stoppard until now has been a mystery. I have not knowingly seen any Stoppard plays in the dim and distant past though as we know (and delightfully Travesties reminds us) memory is an active construct of the present so I could be wrong. Likely though Travesties was my first ever. Obviously bonkers good reviews from the Menier Chocolate Factory run and the fella Hollander drew me in as well as the ubiquitous Patrick Marber directing (in order I would say the draw here being Marber’s previous directing assignments followed by the Partridge connection rather than his plays which I confess I need to see).

In short Tom Hollander plays Henry Carr some minor British consul type who apparently got into a dispute with James Joyce over payment connected with a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest in Zurich in 1917 where Carr played Algernon. Carr is looking back so a kind of imperfect and comedic “memory play’ is brought to bear. From this Stoppard elides Carr’s interactions with Joyce as well as Lenin and Tristan Tzara (one of the founders of Dada) as well Carr’s butler Bennett, Lenin’s wife (I think) and Cecily and Gwendolen characters. Carr and Bennett I gather are characters in Ulysses (of which I am still massively intimidated so have never read or am likely to read I confess).

So how did I fare? Well I thought I had put some hours in having delved into the history of modernism in C20 culture and with a bit of past, and more recent, boning up on Marxism. But I failed to follow vast chunks of Stoppard’s dazzling brain and wit. I can get the plot crossover into the Importance of Being Earnest (thanks mostly to the 2002 film with Everett, Firth, Witherspoon, Dench etc and the Gerald Barry opera which is a must see should it be revived again). But so much of the direct references to the life and works of Lenin, Joyce and Tzara passed me by. (Mind you I can recommend the Soviet Art exhibition at the Royal Academy for an insight into the rise of Lenin and how he shaped art and literature post the Revolution).

Still all the erudition on show does remind you just how important this time was to the formation of ideas in politics, art and literature and how those ideas have (or in many cases have not) filtered through into later decades. I guess some of the debates on the relationship between art and society, capitalism vs socialism and literary form which are aired in the play were more lively in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Travesties was written in 1974) but I still think there was much to feast on here. I just need to work out what.

But no matter it still made me chuckle where I did get it (Tzara whizzing through the inaugural night at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Lenin setting out the correct march through socialism to communism, the p*ss takes on street guides to Dublin) and the zip of the whole thing just carries you along. There were multiple shifts in the form and structure of the play which I thoroughly enjoyed such as a scene entirely in limericks, replays as Carr sees events in different ways, lots of punning, music hall parodies, doors opening/closing in a quasi farcical way as well as verbal sparring generally between Carr and the three main characters as well as moving monologues from Carr on the waste of the First World War.

So if you limber up beforehand with a bit of Wiki action, look at the interview in the programme between Marber and Stoppard (obviously I left this until after – doh) and take it easy on all the brain food on offer here then an enjoyable night is on the cards. Tom Hollander’s ability to capture the bemusement and snarkeyness of the British toff anchors the whole thing and the tone of the other characters was ideal. Freddie Fox as Tzara/Jack/Earnest puts a shift in physically, Forbes Masson as Lenin has a bit less to play with but captures it very well and Peter McDonald as Joyce gets to be Stoppard’s favourite methinks (both in terms of his art and as Lady Bracknell). I especially loved Amy Morgan and Clare Foster in the “no I’m engaged to him” parody bit.

Having said that it is, even with a decent pitch in the stalls, a ridiculously uncomfortable theatre for a big unit like me so beware.

But note to self. Put more effort in for the next Stoppard play.

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