Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Travesties by Tom Stoppard, Menier Chocolate Factory, October 7th, 2016

Is it possible that humour dates more than most forms? Is it possible sometimes a collective madness takes over, which makes everyone for a while find funny something that isn't actually funny, (I think that is what happened with the television series Little Britain, which briefly I thought brilliant - and now find original but really quiet horrible).

I ask these questions because Tom Stoppard in my youth was the playwright who seemed to streak across the firmament as the most exciting theatrical comet around, whereas now I can't help wondering if he is the George Bernard Shaw of our era. Shaw was, similarly, widely revered in his life time, whereas now his plays, on the rare occasions they are staged, bore their audiences rigid. There is such effort on display in Shaw's works that each joke lands with a thud, each example of cleverness draws attention to itself so eagerly that the audience feels almost bullied into reluctant admiration. Sadly, in my experience these days the same is true of Stoppard's plays.

There is no doubt that Travesties is clever. It is so clever in fact that for an audience member to even vaguely understand what is going on and who the characters are, it is advisable to read the script and Stoppard's introduction before setting foot in the theatre. Is this a good thing?

The play  takes place mainly in 1918 in Zurich where its main characters - James Joyce; a Romanian Dadaist called Tsara; Lenin and his wife; and the central figure, Henry Carr, an invalided veteran of World War One, attached to the British Consulate - all lived at the time. Two female characters may or may not have had an independent existence in reality. A character who is a butler in the play definitely existed but not as a butler - in reality he was the British Consul.

Actually the play doesn't exactly take place in Zurich - it takes place in the memory of Henry Carr, who conjures up Zurich in 1918 in his mind. Rather than action or plot, Stoppard gives us an extremely complex interplay of ideas - mainly about art and its place in human life, with a sideline in the function of war - all tangled up with very clever but not necessarily particularly interesting allusions to Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, a production of which Joyce helped to stage and Carr performed in.

Of course, it is brilliant to write a whole scene in the form of a limerick but, sadly, just because it is brilliant does not make it necessarily all that entertaining - and isn't the brilliance rather of the crossword-puzzle-solving variety? Stoppard also appears to have been satisfied with the various sallies he includes that echo the cadences of Wilde, even though they do not succeed in making amusing fun of Wilde's habit of aphorism or in matching his level of wit in that form.

For instance, when one character is offered some tea cake and says, "But I don't like tea-cake. Besides, I have sworn never to shake hands with you again" and the other replies. I don't want you to shake hands with me when I'm eating muffins. Muffins should never be eaten with shaking hands", it is fairly obvious that Stoppard hopes to exploit the absurdity of the word "muffin" and somehow create mirth from the slight bending of the concept of shaking hands, yet is the result actually funny or merely wordy and contrived? Again, while I can hear the Wildean echo - who couldn't - in the assertion, "There is no one so radical as a manservant whose freedom of the champagne bin has been interfered with" and in the statement "The newspapers would never have risked calling the British public to arms without a proper regard for succinct alliteration" and in countless other lame efforts scattered through the play, the echo is not the equal of wit itself, (leaving aside the question of whether Wilde himself was really all that amusing - or retains the ability to provoke laughter today, to return to my original question about humour and whether it dates).

The ruminations contained within the dialogue on what art's role is, what constitutes art and what makes an artist are all fascinating, but they are not dramatic. The lessons on Lenin's life and on the formation of the Dadaist movement are, no doubt, accurate, but I don't drag myself out to the theatre for history lessons. The characterisation is non-existent as each person in the drama is really just the bearer of a set of arguments. None of them is given anything remotely resembling an emotional life.

All the same the Menier Chocolate Factory production did its absolute best with the material, and Tom Hollander was terrific. One exchange, parodying or paralleling a similar exchange in The Importance of Being Earnest, that takes place in the second act between the two female characters is so beautifully staged that it has been ringing in my ears ever since, although whether it is quite worth the price of the ticket is debatable.

I imagine most people would say that Freddie Fox is impressive as Tsara, and in a way he is. However, his performance is more akin to an Olympics gymnastic mat exercise than something involving genuine heart and spirit. Perhaps if he were somewhat less impressed with himself - indeed if he could simply forget himself and how well he is performing for a fraction of a second - it might be easier for the spectator to find him genuinely impressive - although one could argue, not in the end successfully, I think, that he is merely mirroring Stoppard's own self-absorbed delight in himself.

The decision to cast a woman "of colour" as Lenin's wife is something that I suppose just has to be overlooked in the interests of equality but it is distracting. Would a coloured actor be chosen for the more central parts of James Joyce or Lenin? If not, is this piece of casting just a tokenistic gesture? If we are going to be colour blind, can we also cast a white man in the role of Othello?

Ultimately, despite absolutely valiant efforts by the cast and magnificent choreography to try to enliven proceedings, the evening is big on speechifying and very small on heart. It seemed a surprising coincidence when, walking through Regent's Park the next morning, I overheard a woman telling her companion: "I go to the theatre for emotion; I want to laugh or cry and I didn't do either." Could she also have been at the Menier the evening before I wondered? Who knows.

If you can get tickets, the play is worth attending, in order to see just how far ingenuity goes in trying to convert an amalgam of philosophical essays into an evening of theatre. The performances are mostly excellent, the direction and staging and design are brilliant, but the fundamental material they are working with means that, dramatically, the evening cannot be a great success