The revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1974 play Travesties (directed by Patrick Marber) has transferred to the West End, which is good news for me as I couldn’t afford to pay Menier prices. The Apollo Theatre is small but has a bigger capacity than the Menier, and although I did end up squeezed into a Dress Circle seat with extremely limited legroom, at least I didn’t pay a fortune for it.
How to describe Travesties? Set in Zurich in 1917, it blends World War I, James Joyce, Tristan Tzara, Lenin, and Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest in a rich tapestry of humour, farce and general surrealism.
On a stage covered with pieces of paper, Tom Hollander as Henry Carr has a commanding presence, both as the elderly man looking back on his past and as the self-important official who is relegated to the sidelines as history happens all around him. Freddie Fox, Peter McDonald and Forbes Mason are also excellent as Tzara, Joyce and Lenin, as are Amy Morgan and Clare Foster as Gwendolen and Cecily.
You do have to pay attention, but it would be unfair to say you have to have knowledge of the historical events and cultural figures to get the most out of this play. I am familiar with The Importance of Being Earnest which helped, but I’d never heard of Dadaism before I saw this play. If anything, it’s made me want to go and find out more about the people concerned – which makes it a success in my book.
I think this story would work particularly well as a novel, but as a piece of theatre, it’s funny but also poignant: I don’t want to reveal too much but Henry Carr is not necessarily who he seems. Travesties is certainly a play worth seeing.