Travesties is running at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue until April 29th 2017.
Travesties may have been written over 40 years ago, but it’s still a delightful play that doesn’t feel dated in the slightest. This is partly due to its setting, mostly in 1917 Zurich, a period already well in the past when it was first set down, partly due to the timeless topic it deals with- the nature of art and it’s role in society- but mostly due to the ever unsurpassable dialogue from Tom Stoppard. It runs along at such a pace you feel two or three watches would be necessary to make sure you get every joke, aside and reference. It is worth noting that you may get more from this if you have seen the classic Oscar Wilde play The Importance of Being Ernest, but I haven’t and I still enjoyed this immensely.
The basic premise is a now elderly Henry Carr, formerly of the British consulate in Zurich, is telling his memories of 1917, when one of those curious twists of fate meant three great men were present in one small city at the same time- Lenin, James Joyce and the slightly more niche Tristan Tzara, the creator of Dada. Carr, played with huge pathos by Tom Hollander, retells his role in all of these famous people’s lives, but is his memory really up to the task? Regardless of his reliability as a narrator, his recollections touch on some of the eternal questions about humanity- Is politics above all art (says Lenin), is art above all politics (Joyce) or is all of it an absurd attempt to give meaning to a random existence (Tzara). Are wars, such as the one raging outside the borders of their safe haven Switzerland, fought for politics at the expense of art and humanity, or are they fought for humanity, to give them the freedom to create art? Mixed in with this is the overarching unreliability of the narrator, with scenes often played 4 or 5 times in a row with different outcomes each time. Does the truth matter, or is what he remembers the truth anyway?
Of course, being a Tom Stoppard play means that none of this intellectual affair results in a stilted, dry or boring play. Rather, Travesties leaps joyfully from one style to the next, with songs, dances and entire scenes written in limericks appearing out of the blue. There’s a librarian reading through her books alphabetically, some farcical mixed up identities and a butler becoming a class warrior. The cast fizz with energy, especially the exuberant Freddie Fox as Tristan Tzara, tearing up the rule book of art and society and wooing Henry Carr’s sister with boundless enthusiasm.
In his old age, Carr is a frustrating but affectionately drawn portrait of a familiar man, stuck reliving what to him were his glory days. However, whilst he may get to star in this play, in even his own polished recollections he is a nothing more than a bit player- a side character in the exciting lives of the famous people he met, many years ago. Even in Joyce’s rendering of The Importance of Being Ernest, he doesn’t get to play Ernest, but rather The Other One, the foil whose name is constantly forgotten. His role in Travesties however is not one that is likely to be forgotten for a long while.