In my ongoing series of reviewing plays you can’t see anymore, I took my dear friend, the Diary Queen (deliberate misspelling – don’t write in please), to see Travesties in the West End.
It was closing night, following a stellar-review-studded run. And I assure you that my review is in no way influenced by the fact I was sitting THREE seats from Tom Stoppard, the playwright and theatre god. Hopefully he didn’t see me rolling my eyes when I had to stand up to let him get to his seat. He was sitting with Patrick Marber, the director of this revival. The Diary Queen spotted Stoppard. I was more excited to stand next to John C. Reilly (from Stepbrothers and Chicago) in the bar during the interval . He was with another guy off the telly, who will cause me to exclaim “ah yes, that’s him!” at some point in the next month.
However, the fact I was sitting THREE seats from theatre god Tom Stoppard did not stop me slipping into micro-sleeps repeatedly throughout the first half. I succumbed to the wine and warmth of the stalls, lulled by the stream of Stoppard’s prose, mellifluous and cerebral. I was grateful to the regular tolling of a Swiss clock for what I do remember of that first act. Fortunately the second half had more pace.
The play itself is older than me, written in 1974. It’s a trippy historical memoir, the mis-rememberings of civil servant Henry Carr, and his interactions with James “Ulysses” Joyce, Tristan “Dada” Tzara and Vladimir “you-know-this-is-the-famous-communist-but-he’d-appreciate-the-equal-treatment” Lenin, who all found themselves in Zurich during the First World War. The plot – such as it is – pulls threads from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, in the seemingly random way one might pull pluck cat hairs from a velvet coat.
Confused? You will be. And even though the audience skewed notably older and upper middle class, the biggest laughs came from the most accessible jokes. You could almost hear the relief: “Thank God, I got that one!” It’s wonderfully clever and skillfully written, mixing high wit with farce. Like Shakespeare and Beckett, I think the play would be more enjoyable if studied in class beforehand. Observations on history, art, politics, romance, truth, age and copyright law, whistle past in multiple languages and accents.
The performances were excellent. The only well known TV name, Tom Hollander (who I have long suspected would be filth in the bedroom) takes on the lead role and does a great job but Freddie Fox as the anarchic founder of Dadaism was my stand-out.
West End designers are killing it. Similar to every production I’ve seen recently, the set was beautiful, the perfect representation of a library of scattered memories. You felt you could pull any tome from the teetering stacks and delve into a moment from the minds of the characters.
But in this mishmash of art and politics one musing resonated above the rest: the observation that Marx got it all wrong – because he expected people to act according to their class sympathies. And here we stand today, down through the ages, with the same confusion. Why is the message of Left so unappealing to the working class? Why are people turning away from our natural allies, to those who referred to themselves in the past as our natural masters? Stoppard’s comments on the failure of Marxism may well refer to the failure of socialism soon, to my great sadness. I have thought about this and be prepared: searing political insight coming to your blog roll soon.
While the bureaucrat sees the allure of Lenin’s idealism and Dada’s anti-establishment spirit, he ultimately treats them with disdain. To get into the librarian’s pants, he declares himself to be a “decadent nihilist”, though he cannot maintain the facade. But these are the words that have stayed with me. If the idealism of the Left must be defeated, I will not embrace the unpalatable status quo. I will declare myself a decadent nihilist, and scream loud “what’s the point?”. If we cannot re-build the system, perhaps we must destroy it.