TRAVESTIES by Tom Stoppard was first presented in 1974 at the Aldwych Theatre in
Like most of Stoppard’s work this is “History rewritten as fiction (and) it is the motif of TRAVESTIES, a work that exploits the coincidence of (James) Joyce, (
So, here as usual with a Stoppard play, is a very intellectually dense evening in the theatre. The artistic theories of Tzara and the Dada movement, the artistic beliefs of Joyce, the theories of Marx as interpreted by Lenin and a loving and oft quoted homage to THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. “While most audiences (are) overjoyed, some (are) overtaxed, reacting negatively to the showy demonstration of wit. Was it necessary for an entire scene to be written in limericks or to hijack THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST into the text? Were the aria-like debates required? Stoppard’s defence was clear, explaining that the “work consists of serious propositions compromised by my personal frivolity… That’s where it misses the people it misses. The serious people find the whole thing hopelessly frivolous, and the people who really think they are going to see an empty comedy find the whole thing impossibly intellectual. And my object is to perform a marriage between the play of ideas and farce. “
Some of my audience talking about what they had just seen at the Drama Theatre on Friday evening were having some of the same reactions. It is, however, a testament to the writing that this play is permanently in the repertory of International Theatre and is as popular as it is controversial, still, in 2009. Well loved and oft revived. There is sometimes a shudder away from a work that seems so impenetrable but as recent history has told us when a work of this kind of challenge is presented and DONE WELL, it finds an enthusiastic audience. The STC’s production of COPENHAGEN was not for intellectual slouchers and yet it proved to be a great popular and Box Office success. Build it and they will come. Put it on and we will go. Just ensure it is done well.
To this production, then, at the Sydney Opera House: The director, Richard Cottrell, following on from his masterful production of a much lesser work, YING TONG - A WALK WITH THE GOONS, has brought to bear not only his great experience (to read his theatre bio-graphical notes in the program is to humble many a fellow artist), but his intellectual acumen and a loving relish of the theatre; a positive “glorying“ in it!!!
The cast he has placed at the service of Mr Stoppard’s text, under his tutelage and care, is fairly well perfect. The design by Michael Scott-Mitchell (Set) and Julie Lynch (Costume) has been calibrated to serve the text and Mr Cottrell’s intentions like a glove firmly on a hand. (My personal taste finds it just too busy, too many visual offers to be comfortable with, with so many words as well.) The Lighting (Bernie Tan) and the complex Sound design (Paul Charlier) are in total harmony; with the sound almost a comic character in its contributions to the fun and textual “pointing.” (eg the cuckoos!!!) The Choreographer/movement (Pamela French) along with the rigours of the Voice and Text work (Charmian Gradwell) must also be acknowledged as successful contributors to solving the traps of this very difficult text.
Jonathan Biggins playing Henry Carr, the senile narrator and at other times the young consulate/actor figure gives a highly engaged and engaging performance. The success of the evening hangs on his assiduity. He certainly has the affection of the audience who quickly surrender to his charisma as a performer and trust him to take them safely and clearly on a journey. (The older Carr, on the night I attended was vocally just too muffled in his Englishness and senility to be perfectly comprehended. But so confident is Mr Biggins that I was persuaded to stay with him and keep up. It pays off, but if one was not excited by the play, one might easily opt out of the effort demanded and give up completely, frustratedly.) The command of Mr Biggins interplay with firstly Robert Alexander (Bennett), who I have not seen, recently, as wonderful (watch the dexterity and beauty of his dancing in the finale as well); then secondly,Toby Schmitz (Tristan Tzara) in a series of intellectually superb scenes of scintillating wit and learning is admirable indeed. Toby Schmitz gives a dazzlingly adept and cheeky performance of a very high order. Brain, body and voice in marvellous trim. Peter Houghton (James Joyce) is not quite as on target all the time, but gives an overall picture of Joyce’s interests, if not always a constant accurate detailing. Blazey Best (Gwendolen) and especially a marvellously energetic and accurate Rebecca Massey (Cecily) play the Stoppardian/Wildean demeanours for the heroines, well. The musical duet between the dueling Gwendolen and Cecily in the second act, a perfect delight of audacity. Kept for the last act is William Zappa (Lenin) who in a guise of dour seriousness along with Wendy Strehlow (Nadya Lenin) as an earthing, passionate disciple of her husband and Marx, give the comedy a mordant humour that balances delightfully the frivolousness of all the others combined. Mr Zappa, my favourite Australian actor, is immaculate in timing, gesture and wit. Wendy Strehlow should be watched for the quiet magnificence of her refined and restrained choices that brings a clean sleekness to the ideas of the role. This is as near a perfect company that I have seen on a
This is early Stoppard and in hindsight one can protest the intellectual coolness that his characters sometimes have to, have to work, which sometimes is at the expense of a fully realised human being. Some audience may object that there is not enough reality in the characters. But to quote Wilde from THAT play “In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing.” In this gravely important debate of Art, Politics and Revolution the playing in heightened style is of vital importance, to the sustained concentration of the whole. To blur it too much with “the milk of human kindness” might disable the vessel from its objective, which is principally to stimulate and amuse by debate.
In the later oeuvre of Mr Stoppard, we see this master playwright begin to balance his heart and brain better. In
The subtitle to Wilde’s THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST is A Trivial Comedy for Serious People. It could just as well be the same for Stoppard’s TRAVESTIES. Prepare for it and don’t miss it.
Playing now until 25 April. Book online or call 02 9250 1777.
Postscript: The STC program has Mr Tzara being born in 1816, which would make him to be 101 at the time of the play. Mr Schmitz may need a different make up and approach to character -creation!!!!! It also has Lenin dying in 1953, some 30 odd years after the actual date. Now there is a subject matter for Mr Stoppard to play with: The fictional birth and dates of men of history!!!!!!! Meeting where? In Antartica?