Last year both the RSC and the National Theatre staged dazzling major productions of Tom Stoppard plays; in a few weeks' time both will have transferred to the West End. Adrian Noble's Travesties for the RSC comes first, serving as a reminder that the coruscating linguistic and formal playfulness of early Stoppard was more than mere intellectualism for its own sake.
The play, dating from 1974, builds a gigantic inverted pyramid of absurdity on the coincidence that Zurich in 1917 was the home of both James Joyce and the pioneer of the Dadaist anti-art movement Tristan Tzara; Stoppard takes a few months' liberty and throws Lenin into the mix as well. However, the central character is Henry Carr, a minor consular official who acted in Joyce's amateur production of The Importance Of Being Earnest and then sued him for the cost of a pair of trousers. Wilde's lines echo through Stoppard's play with the persistence of a yodeller in the Whispering Gallery.
As Carr, Anthony Sher never lets up for a moment. The reminiscences of the shambling, rambling old man constantly loop Möbius-like back to square one in a different dimension, but rather than pitting himself against these confusions Sher relishes them with a conspiratorial chuckle. He knows, too, that he looks odd as the raffish Wildean figure of young Henry; instead of toning down the exuberance, however, he gambols around the stage like an improbably stocky gazelle, revelling in the incongruity this produces.
Sher, though, is simply first among equals in the field of caricature. David Westhead's Tzara combines the charm of a young blade with a fine line in gibberish and poems pulled word by word out of a hat. Lloyd Hutchinson is James Joyce as the writer would have parodied himself: precise, finicky and ever alert to the ludicrous. Rebecca Saire and Amanda Harris are more completely Gwendolen and Cecily than any actresses I have seen in the original roles.
Stoppard's rewrites excise some of the flabbier humour and add comic punch, in particular, to the otherwise heavy going of Act Two's Lenin-centred musings upon political philosophy. This and his debate on the role of the artist are more tightly focused by Noble, which makes the conservatism of the writer's sympathies more disappointing. But his conclusions are eclipsed by the gloriously gaudy manner in which the issues are presented in this quite remarkable production.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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