The litmus test for the accessibility of Tom Stoppard’s euphorically erudite play Travesties resides, I believe, with my fifteen-year-old daughter Lea, who loves to read but has no deep familiarity, as yet, with the names – let alone the work – of James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin or Tristan Tzara.
This was a concern for both of us heading into the new Roundabout Theatre revival of Stoppard’s 1975 Tony Award-winning fantasia on art, memory and the presence of Joyce, Lenin and Tzara together in Zurich for one brief moment in 1917. Would Lea be bored? Or worse, would Lea feel stupid? And, while we’re on the subject, would I?
The answer, I am delighted to report, is: none of the above. Roundabout’s rip-roaring restaging of the 2016 hit London production of Travesties devised by the Menier Chocolate Factory had Lea (and me) on the edge of our seats, devouring the play’s epigramatic convolutions while practically levitating with comedic intoxication. I mean, we were both flying.
The slapstick helped. Stoppard’s knockabout sense of aesthetic disputation and dramaturgy is blessedly matched by a passion for baggypants physicality that the director, Patrick Marber, has gone all in with here, and why not? His production is one extended knock ‘em dead dance of delirium.
And yet, Stoppard’s play of ideas is so penetratingly expressed, so verbally vivid, that again and again Lea registered individual lines with audible exhalations of wonder and approval. “You are an over-excited little man with a need for self-expression far beyond the scope of your natural gifts,” Joyce announces with almost offhand self-evidence to the exhaustingly self-involved Tzara – founder, as Tzara continually reminds everyone, of Dada, or “anti-art.” “This is not discreditable,” Joyce concludes. “Neither does it make you an artist. An artist is the magician put among men to gratify – capriciously – their urge for immortality.”
Lea’s gasp, followed by a deep, dark laugh, cut through the entire theater.
Kids should see Travesties. Lots of them. It is an entry point to a funhouse of fresh thinking about art, to say nothing of history, offered up with subversively divine impudence. By the end of the evening, Lea had a profound, purely character-driven, sense of who Joyce, Lenin and Tzara were (and were not), which made her want to read up on all of them. That’s a pretty swell way to leave a play.
A toast to the extraordinary company of actors that Roundabout has assembled, who not only deliver Stoppard’s fever dream of language, history and provocation thrillingly but also sing and dance show-stoppingly well. The rubber-limbed Seth Numrich is endearing as the irritating Zara; Peter McDonald renders the enigmatic Joyce with a myth conjuring transparency ; and Dan Butler suggests the hairs-breath demarcation between killer and clown in the exiled Lenin, as he splenetically awaits his moment to return to Russia and its revolution.
All are led in a madcap roundelaigh by Tom Hollander, star of the original London production. Hollander gives voice and protean form to the show’s unreliable narrator, Henry Carr, who actually lived — a real, utterly inconsequential, figure in Joyce’s Zurich orbit in 1917. Watching Travesties, we are watching fading memories in the ageing Carr’s mind. Hollander is absolutely dazzling bringing those memories (and their dubious authenticity) to life.
Everyone in the cast speaks Stoppard’s lines with eloquence and elegance, as if in a drawing room comedy like The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Which, as Stoppard would have it, they at times are; much of their dialogue and even a few of their characters’ names actually come from Earnest. I mentioned this to Lea, who knows the name Oscar Wilde better than those of Joyce, Lenin and Tzara, but more as an avatar of gay liberation than as a literary lion. Such are the gender-political times in which she has grown up. Knowledge is knowledge. All of it adds to the pleaure of appreciating Tom Stoppard but none of it is essential. When Lea one day re-encounters The Importance of Being Earnest on the page or on a stage, I bet she will look back to our evening at Travesties and laugh. Again.