Switzerland is anything but a state of neutrality in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, as art and war wrangle with each other to prove their significance, and revolutions of all kind loom over the lives of its intelligentsia. But is it the revolution of art or of the proletariat that will inhabit a more significant role in their identities and intellectual lives? Henry Carr is a former British diplomat, now decrepit and quaking both in body and memory, trying to piece together the events of 1917 in Zurich as James Joyce, Tristan Tzara and a certain Vladimir Lenin crossed paths amidst their respective pursuits of innovation. The result is a beautiful cacophony of clashing ideals, linguistic licentiousness and the importance of The Importance of Being Earnest.
The result is a beautiful cacophony of clashing ideals, linguistic licentiousness and the importance of The Importance of Being Earnest.
What is novel about the production is its literal use of literary devices, providing a lens through which to read the characters’ forays into art, war and revolution. Books are wheeled about the stage in piles, entrenching exchanges of ideas and passing of events in a physical place on stage, a source of certainty amidst the uncertain. From Carr’s reflections on his time in the war (“entente to the right of them, détente to the left”, he reminisces) to the use of the library as the centre of climactic developments, the themes of the place are played out through the medium of the literary world. As literature takes centre stage, and our only visual insights into actual war are flashes of light in the background, one becomes uncomfortable with the contrast between Carr’s memories of war and the drama that is made of Dadaism and the joviality of Joyce. Is it war or is it culture that is truly trivial?
Yet the play does not indulge excessively in this discomfort, rather rejoicing from the comedy it provides. The constant wordplay, laughable conundrums and oddball characters ensure that humour is never far from sight, making it a light-hearted and thoroughly enjoyable experience. Its cast is a particular strongpoint, and Lee Simmonds as Carr is astounding, morphing from his frail elderly frame to the confident memory of his youth with ease and wonderfully pronounced delivery. And while at points it is hard not to get a bit lost in the plot, the play, and thus the audience, revels in the obscurity of it all.
Lee Simmonds as Carr is astounding
Admittedly, there were a few places where the atmosphere lagged. The show felt at its liveliest when it made full use of the stage and the ensemble, so when the second half of Act 1 occupied an uncomfortably sized portion of the stage for quite a while, with no use of the animated ensemble, it felt as though it were drained of some of its energy. This may have also have been due to the fact that not much was made of the potential of music in transitions. Perhaps it is a pitfall of a Playhouse show that the audience comes to expect a production that fully embraces the scope of the rather large theatre.
Some of the slower bits are worth the patience, however, when Act 2 bursts forth, finally weaving the long-anticipated Lenin (Staś Butler) fully into the narrative of heightening ludicrousness and more serious threats of social disruption. Particularly delightful to watch was the interaction and interplay of Gwendolen and Cecily (Olivia White and Emma Howlett respectively), bringing a refreshing, witty femininity to the fore. As the threads of the different characters’ ideals and desires are brought together, only to threaten to unravel once more, one is left feeling satisfactorily conflicted. Travesties certainly proves that it is far from a travesty, rising to triumph instead.