Review by Amanda Higgin
Photos by Luke Wintour
A Romanian, an Irishman, a Russian and an Englishman walk into a public library in 1917 Zurich. What ensues is a beautifully crafted work, skilfully derived from complex and challenging source material. The design is fascinating, the performances are superb, but most of all my respect must go to Bea Udale-Smith, the show’s director, and her creative team, for rendering Stoppard’s literature into a captivating show.
Congratulations, Travesties. Congratulations.
The Romanian in question is Tristan Tzara, a Dadaist poet who composes his pieces by literally pulling words out of a hat. The Irishman: James Joyce, composing his masterwork Ulysses. The Russian is Vladimir Ilyich, better known to us as Lenin. And the Englishman is our narrator: Henry Carr. Carr recalls his interactions with these figures while he was in the British Consulate, but his recollections are far from coherent. Scenes reset and repeat, their chronology unclear; the tone which normally indicates a rewind becomes increasingly ambiguous as it is repeated. The scenes defy linear narrative and even stylistic coherence: one memorable scene is performed using limericks and, although I’ll admit it all went over my head, the unfolding narrative apparently borrows some reference from The Importance of Being Earnest. What results is an engaging, if erratic, tour through history as Carr wistfully recalls it.
Stoppard’s text is clearly a monolithic construction, fit to intimidate any prospective director or actor. Long soliloquies, extensive linguistic repartee and limited narrative movement could easily have created something which was more a study in delivery than a theatrical production. Occasionally, it must be admitted, I found myself wondering when a scene would end, but this was remarkably rare. Credit for this must go to both Udale-Smith and the actors she managed to skim off the top of Oxford student theatre.
Lee Simmonds as Henry Carr was enthralling. He carried off the numerous on-stage transitions between old and young Carr, and delivered extensive monologues not only with finesse but also with humour, eliciting chuckles from his audience with only carefully balanced pauses or apt facial expressions. Having seen him in A Beautiful Thing (3HT18, Pilch) I was impressed by the breadth Simmonds demonstrated in the contrast between Jamie, a young boy exploring his sexuality, and our present narrator.
Nearly equal praise must go to the whole supporting cast, who carried off their roles with professional attention to detail. Special mentions are deserved by Julia Pilkington and Kate Weir in their roles as Tristan Tzara and James Joyce respectively, the boldest characters in the piece who flirt with caricature yet always remain unpredictable. Also by the ensemble, who make it worth staying in the auditorium during the interval.
To top it all, Travesties is impeccably designed. Carr’s own obsession with fashion is matched by the curation of the costumes, from Joyce’s comically Irish-hued jacket to Lenin’s brief, comically inappropriate wig. A script which was prevented from becoming linguistically monochrome by its performance and direction is likewise aesthetically illuminated by the multicoloured design of both the costumes and the props. Just as Carr is always the debonair gentleman, associated but never involved with the men whom he observes, so his costume contrasts with theirs. An honourable mention is deserved by our own Caroline Ball, superb in her invisibility but represented by the props and set which she managed.
In summary, I emerged from the Oxford Playhouse thoroughly impressed. What was clearly a challenging script became witty, interesting, involved, dramatic and, above all, funny! If you have the chance to see Travesties, I can only recommend it.