Patrick Marber’s dynamic revival of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties is anything but one

A misremembered anecdote about James Joyce is at the centre of this wittily-revived play.

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Seen from two career landmarks – his 80th birthday next July and this summer’s 50th anniversary of the premiere of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – Sir Tom Stoppard’s full-length plays fall into three neat strands. That debut play putting the courtiers from Hamlet centre stage was followed by two other literary riffs: Travesties (handbagging The Importance of Being Earnest) and Jumpers (trampolining from A J Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic).

Those linguistic fantasias gave way to contemporary-realistic reflections on journalism, theatre and science (Night and Day, The Real Thing, Hapgood, The Hard Problem), then literary-biographical variations on the lives of Byron (Arcadia), A E Housman (The Invention of Love), Alexander Herzen (The Coast of Utopia) and Václav Havel-Tom Stoppard (Rock ‘n’ Roll).

The works most frequently revived have been The Real Thing, regarded as Stoppard’s deepest examination of the workings of the heart and of art, and Arcadia, considered the most dazzling game with facts. The relative neglect of Travesties since its first production, by the RSC in 1974, comes from a perception that it combines too much breadth of learning with insufficient depth of emotion. Patrick Marber’s superb revival powerfully makes the case that the play is not just an intellectual amusement arcade but is darkly concerned with real things.

The play was inspired by a footnote in Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce, about Joyce becoming involved in a legal dispute with Henry Carr, a consular official in Switzerland, over the purchase of costumes and tickets for a production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Stoppard has the elderly Carr dementedly misremembering his involvement with Joyce, who, in Zurich from 1916 to 1917, was modernising the novel at the same time as two other revolutionary projects were in train: Tristan Tzara launching the absurdist art movement Dada, and Lenin fomenting the rhetoric that brings a summons to govern Russia.

Stoppard’s reputation as a dramatist who twists actors’ tongues and bends audiences’ minds was encouraged by a text that gives Joyce a scene entirely in limericks, delivers the history of pre-revolutionary Russia through spoofs of the butler-master scenes in Wilde’s The Importance . . . and has Joyce eliciting the history of Dada from Tzara in a parody of the catechism chapter in Ulysses.

Yet the dazzlingly playful structure, this production makes clear, is a frame for painfully serious content. The arguments between Carr, Joyce, Tzara and Lenin about whether the purpose of art is to soothe, ridicule, politicise or spiritualise clearly represent Stoppard’s ars poetica, while also having general resonance. A Dadaist gag in which a Shakespearean love sonnet is cut up with scissors and randomly reassembled is funny and clever, but is played with deep erotic tension. Introducing interludes of dance and song, including a lusty rendition of the Soviet anthem, Marber has also coaxed new material from Stoppard, most strikingly a moment of sexual farce involving under-the-table cunnilingus and the climax of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses.

The rapid sell-out at Menier (and a likely West End transfer) have been attributed to the central casting of Tom Hollander, a known name and face from Rev and The Night Manager on TV. However, anyone who comes to see an actor off the telly will surely leave turned on to the theatre.

Finding a line of verbal and intellectual clarity through the linguistic and historical maze of Carr’s opening six-page monologue, Hollander is just as eloquent in his expressions. Cartoonish eye-pops as events turn strange emphasise the play’s status as a senescent dream-nightmare, while his dandyish delight when told of the costumes available for his Algernon suggest a cat in a swimming pool of cream. But, sealing Marber’s mission to underpin the script with feeling, he also fleetingly shudders with shell shock when recalling the war.

Forbes Masson makes Lenin a convincing mixture of abstract scholar and plotting politician, and Clare Foster’s Cecily, Amy Morgan’s Gwendolen and Freddie Fox’s Tzara make constantly enjoyable sense of the three levels (Stoppardian, Wildean, historical) in their characters. Opening soon after the powerful revival of Harold Pinter’s 1975 play No Man’s Land, this thumpingly funny and profound production confirms the enduring vitality of the two leading English playwrights to emerge in the 1960s.

“Travesties” runs until 19 November

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. 

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge