Seeking a way to explain Dada, Henry Carr (Lee Simmonds) sways from side to side, leading with a shaking, pointed finger, somehow so uncertain and yet so smooth. Behind him, an enigmatic ensemble cast sharply punctuate his every word: his every thought of the past is given physical form. In a sense, the whole play is only the physical form of Henry Carr’s vague inklings, but this decision to use the ensemble to place every thought under a microscopic lens makes the impossible density of Stoppard’s witty script a little less impossible to comprehend.
Talking to director Bea Udale-Smith after the preview, she told us that this production of Travesties would be a walk away from the often middle-aged, middle-class demographic of Stoppard through the use of a more visual style. I agreed when she said that productions of Stoppard often rely on the wit of the writing, and play up the characters’ intellect to the point where references are often lost. I’ve studied Stoppard for my degree, but I feel seeing this production of Travesties directed with this unique attitude could help me more in solidifying my understanding of the play than heaps of literary criticism might.
I was moved when Bea explained her interpretation of the concept of probability in Stoppard. The play emphasises the vast coincidence that Lenin, Joyce and Tristan Tzara were all in Zurich, using the same library, for a small period of time in 1917, and whenever Carr is asked why he doesn’t worry about Lenin’s revolution, the response is ‘a million to one’ that he will succeed. Similarly, Carr criticises Tzara and Joyce with my favourite line in the play: “For every thousand people, there are nine hundred doing work, ninety doing well, nine doing good, and one lucky bastard who’s the artist.”
Carr presents these characters as individuals who have fallen through the cosmic gaps – they’ve no right to have become so famous in the first place, let alone all be together. Bea said that this was part of Carr’s great tragedy – he watched not only one but three people whom he hated become the fathers of the modern age, while he was never remembered (before I read the play, as you probably do now, I had no idea who Henry Carr was). I could see this deep regret in Lee Simmonds’ performance – as Henry Carr makes up unreliable tableaus before the audience of what his youth was like, making up a new personality and attitude for himself every time, there is a melancholy behind it all. A grim smile here, a slight hesitation, the sense that at any moment Carr’s old-age depression could break through the facade of his young life.
Bea also showed us a scene from one of the sections of the play modelled after The Importance of Being Earnest. I have never felt so threatened by a teacup as when watching Gwendolen (Olivia White) aggressively drive Cecily (Emma Howlett) through an afternoon tea told entirely in rhyme. The rhyme of the scene, combined with the elements taken from the playground of Wilde’s absurd, epigrammatic parallel world really gave the impression that the artificiality of the play (and thus Carr’s imagination) reached an exponential crescendo towards the end. When Bea said that she only directed one scene as entirely real, entirely genuine, it made me excited to see what she interprets as the one truth of Travesties. Stoppard has said in interviews about Travesties that “I do not think it tells the truth,” and as a play full of lies and fictions, that one truthful scene will mean the world.
Tristan Tzara is possibly my favourite character in any Stoppard play, and though I didn’t get the chance to see Julia Pilkington playing him, I look forward to see what a production with such emphasis on choreography could do with him. Tzara is flamboyant, destructive, and misanthropic – if Lee Simmonds could cause carnage on the stage with nothing but a cheese sandwich, I can’t wait to see what a wild nihilist with a death wish for all art can do.
As with most Stoppard plays, Travesties is a literature or history nerd’s dream play, but I think that the absurdist comedy that clashes with its haunting melancholy makes it a play that anyone could enjoy, so I encourage everyone to go and see it in second week!