Theatre review: Travesties

Brace yourself, Tom Stoppard's 1974 play achieves the near impossible


Brace yourself. Tom Stoppard's 1974 play achieves the near impossible. Set in Zurich, 1917, when Switzerland, or the "still wheel of war", was brimful of artists, writers and revolutionaries, it mashes together the ideas that shaped much of the last century and, at the same time, has fun. Yes, fun.

Fun with a Lenin (Forbes Masson) who is on the cusp of seeing his Russian revolution actually happen, anti-art artist Tristan Tzara (Freddie Fox) just as he founds the iconoclastic Dadaist movement, and James Joyce (Peter McDonald) who is writing his monumental book, Ulysses.

Into this setting, Stoppard casts another lesser known historical fact - among the British consulate's staff in Zurich at that time was one Henry Carr (Tom Hollander in superb, supercilious form) who in the mind of Stoppard - or rather his misremembering version of Carr - fraternised with and occasionally spied on the above 20th-century titans (especially Lenin of course) and at the behest of Joyce was persuaded to act in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest.

Now, for most people all this would have amounted to little more than a series of interesting historical footnotes. For Stoppard, they are the trigger to a play that explores the ideas of the thinkers that populate it; culminating in a dazzling verbal duel about the value of art between Fox's fizzing Tzara and the unbeatable brilliance of Joyce. And then - and this is where it has me incredulously shaking my head at the sheer audacity of all - it hijacks the plot of Importance, while matching and even exceeding the wit of Wilde.

Patrick Marber's production negotiates all this and more with the nimbleness of a principal ballerina, though the Stoppardian ability to exhilarate the mind and then devastate the emotions, never quite materialises.

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