The Story of It All

Tom Stoppard: Travesties, Menier Chocolate Factory / Apollo Theatre, London (Director: Patrick Marber)

By Sascha Krieger

1920s music is playing, the battered red curtain evokes the heyday of comic theatre and the music hall. An old man in a worn out bathrobe and a tattered straw hat shuffles on stage. He tries to raise the curtain, taps on it, smiles uneasily. First, nothing happens, then, slowly, the curtain goes up, an cluttered old library in revealed, books everywhere, pages on the floor, a labyrinth of remembered – and forgotten – knowledge. In Tom Stoppard’s early play Travesties, Henry Carr, an employee at the British Consulate in Zurich in 1917, remembers the days when the swiss city was a centre of revolution: Lenin in exile, James Joyce re-inventing the novel, Dada questioning the very nature of art. And Carr at the centre of it all, spying on Lenin, becoming friends with Dada hero Tristan Tzara, playing in a theatre production put on by Joyce. At least this is how he remembers it. It will be only at the very end, that the audience will know how unreliable Carr as a narrator is. He re-invents himself in the process, tells of meetings that never could have happened and mixes up life and art by transforming his story, or rather stories, into a version of Oscar Wilde’s The importance of Being Earnest, the very play he acted in in Zurich.

The Apollo Theatre (Image: Sascha Krieger)

Travesties is an exploration of art, its role, potential and limits, in the form of a raucous comedy. In Patrick Marber’s – a dramatist in his own right – production, Stoppard’s play is a celebration of the theatre and an homage to story-telling as the basis of human civilisation and, yes, culture. Carr sets off to tell his story. Tom Hollander plays him as an intriguing master of ceremony, a variety star, complete with flamboyant suit, cocky attitude, more than a hint of slickness and a rich dose of vanity. Repeatedly, the library bell is rung, starting the story anew, altering it with every new iteration. The telling of the story turns into the process of story-making, trying out plots, discarding dead ends, finding the best way to present oneself. Carr pictures himself arguing with Joyce, sparring with Tzara, listening to Lenin. Life turns into theatre, performance is everywhere: in the dandyism of Freddie Fox‘ challengingly joyful Tzara, the dry wit of Peter MacDonald’s Joyce, the vanity of Forbes Masson’s Lenin. Clare Foster dances on tables as they recite, make speeches, sing, dance, perform a burlesque-style variety show act. As Joyce, Tzara and Lenin argue about the nature and role of art – Joyce highlighting the individual as creator, Tzara challenging this very belief and Lenin giving art of purely political role – its anarchic independence takes over.

No matter what ideological corset art is to be fitted in, it finds a way out, trying the tragic – as in Carr’s war memories – the sentimental (the final bitter remembering by the old Carr and his wife), the farcical, the musical and the music hall, the serious and the highly silly. Meaning, nonsense, art’s power to re-invent the individual, to try out new lives, imagine world’s, adopt alternative identities – it is all here in this variety show slash arts lecture slash comedy of errors slash history lesson. Hollander reveals himself as a master story-teller – sly, dumb, affable, vainly arrogant, devilish, sarcastic, vulnerable. A magician conjuring up a reality of his own but to share, out of his mind and imagination. Flawed, untrue perhaps. Or the opposite, enchanted by the reality of art, its truth, its universe. As the whole of theatre is paraded on stage he keeps re-inventing self, story, history, the very process of story-telling. Art is not as much discussed as presented, tried out and discarded, shown triumphant and failing, profound and nonsensical, lasting and fleeting.

In the end, as Joyce says: who would remember Troy without Homer? Doesn’t Troy exist only because of Homer? Isn’t art the real inventor, not just the interpreter of the world, history, civilisation? Perhaps not, but would we be alive if we didn’t have stories to tell, if we didn’t know how to tell, invent, shape them? Who would, who could we even be without them? In Patrick Marber’s production of Stoppard’s play the anarchic creativity of art – and theatre in particular – celebrates itself. In all its nothingness and universality. In all its life and life-giving power, its capacity to make sense of it all and reject sense, get to the bottom of things or escape them, experience, joy and pain and relief and get away from them. A smart, touching, raucously funny, madly inventive production of a magically multi-faceted play.

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