Travesties

Tom Stoppard
Nottingham Playhouse
(2003)

They've been described as the most unlikely group of people to appear in the same play: Irish novelist James Joyce; artist Tristan Tzara who was at the forefront of the Dada movement; and revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin. The one thing they had in common was that they were all in Switzerland in 1917 and they all came into contact with Henry Carr, a minor official of the British consulate in Zurich who is the central character of Travesties.

Carr was in fact a genuine historical figure and during his stay in Zurich he was cast as Algernon Moncrieff in a production by the English Players theatrical company of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. He bought a hat, trousers and a glove for the role but was paid only ten francs by the company's business manager, Joyce. Carr took him to court, so Joyce took his revenge in Ulysses in which Carr appears as a drunken, obscene soldier.

Stoppard's take, though, is different. Travesties is Carr's senile reminiscences of his encounters with the three modern thinkers. He gives his own views on the relationship between art and politics, putting his own spin on them but failing to win the argument.

Nottingham Playhouse associate director Richard Baron revives the play with which he made his professional directorial debut in 1992 at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh.

You would think then that he would be able to come up with an amazing offering which left you marvelling at Stoppard's inventiveness, vision and craft. But while the finished product is not a travesty, it leaves you with a feeling that it may be another decade before anyone else tackles the play.

Simon Green copes admirably with the part of Carr, a huge role in which he excels both as the foppish young man and the shuffling senior citizen who quaintly has a hot water bottle fastened to the back of his dressing gown.

Less successful though is Kern Falconer who as James Joyce speaks too indistinctly and quickly for his Irish accent to be understood, especially in an early scene which features the actors speaking in a series of limericks.

Matt Blair revels in the role of Tzara who leaves you in no doubt why the literary expressions of Dada were mostly nonsense poems or meaningless combinations of words. Eilidh Macdonald is a vivacious, spirited Cecily and David Delve is the spitting image of Lenin.

But as a whole the production, especially when it turns into an unorthodox version of Earnest, appears messy, with a song thrown in here, a dance routine there. The audience were often bemused, laughing uncomfortably in places and not always appreciating Stoppard's intriguing nuances.

Is it any good? Several days after seeing it I was still thinking about the play, so it scored in that respect. I also remember one of the characters proclaiming: "It may be nonsense, but at least it's clever nonsense." Perhaps that sums it up.

"Travesties" runs until May 17th

Reviewer: Steve Orme