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There was this artist, a writer and Lenin 

The three stooges: at least  they are in Henry Carr's tale of life in Zurich in 1917 with Roger Ringrose (Lenin), Tom Davey (Tristan Tzara) and Nick Caldecott (James Joyce) in Travesties

Travesties

Birmingham Rep

The Old Rep

****

FIRST a confession. I am really not sure what it was all about . . . but whatever it was it was very good. Excellent in fact.

Tom Stoppard's Travesties pays homage to Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest  - which I do understand - which Birmingham Rep are running alongside this production with the same cast, a throwback to the rep's roots all taking place in the theatre where it all started.

But back to Travesties which seemed to concern a minor diplomat, a footnote in Foreign Office archives called Henry Carr who was, or perhaps wasn't the British consul in Zurich during the First World War and had now reached that point in life when memory and reality were no longer on speaking terms, thus his recollections of life in the service were, at best, muddled and at worst, memories that perhaps belonged to someone else.

It seems he appeared in The Importance of Being Earnest, not as Ernest but  . . . er . . . the other one that he couldn't remember in a production managed by James Joyce who was having Ulysses typed up by Carr's sister Gwen. The performance went quite well apparently except that Joyce and Carr ended up suing each other in the Swiss courts.

He was also very friendly with Tristan, or maybe it was Jack, Tzara who founded the Dada movement which, apparently, was a protest against the bourgeois nationalist and colonialist interests which dadaists thought were the cause of war and the creator of society's ills and essentially it was anti-art art or something like that.

Tristan's, or maybe Jack's, more personal bourgeois nationalist and colonialist interests were directed more towards Gwen - I wonder if he called her dadarling - who provided half the romantic interest.

Henry was not only hobnobbing with the giants of literature and art, a physically small giant in Joyce's case, but was also an acquaintance, or maybe not, of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known by his party name of Lenin.

All of this comes out in a sort of First World War version of Groundhog Day played out in the British consulate and public library of Zurich in, incidentally, a very fine set, with three huge walls of bookshelves created by Colin Falconer.

James Joyce who was in Zurich during the First World War, and returned  in 1940 during the Second World War and died from a perforated ulcer the next year

Scene after scene is played out and then restarted with a different script and outcome, presumably to give some idea of the conflicting memories and thoughts in Henry's now addled brain of what went on in the consulate and library.

The library incidentally provides the other love interest with straight-laced librarian and part-time fantasy stripper Cecily who falls for Tristan, who is really Henry, and not Jack. Don't bother with an explanation, just trust me.

The cast, set and direction by Philip Wilson can hardly be faulted and the clever lighting by Simon Bond only adds to the performance

Nick Caldecott is a prickly Joyce, the author of what is probably one of the longest and most famous books in world literature - I suspect it is also one of the least read, certainly to the end, books around. His Joyce is small dapper and the owner of a collection of jackets and trousers which match but never at the same time. A sort of sophisticated, Irish Groucho Marx.

Then there is Tristan, or Jack when he is at the library where he is not to be confused with Henry who you remember is also Tristan by the way. Tristan, not the Henry one, is played by Tom Davey in a rather intense way, wrapped in a university scarf rather like an eternal don striding across the quad of some Oxbridge college on his way to launch a lecture.

Lenin is, well Lenin. Roger Ringrose does not have a lot to work with as the less than entertaining revolutionary but squeezes everything he can from the role including the memorable parodied Wilde line: "To lose one revolution may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness."

Helping his cause is Nadya, Abigail McKern while helping his research is the librarian Cecily, played by Emerald O'Hanrahan, Emma Grundy for Archer's fans out there.

Lenin fires her imagination and social conscience, and for a while at least; our firebrand revolutionary, up the proletariat, workers unite, only chains to lose and all that librarian is manning the barricades, which come somewhere between the As and Cs. Somewhere along the line comfort must have trumped causes though as she ends up married to our pillar of the establishment dear old Henry.

PRIM AND PROPER

She is either the essence of sex or prim and proper staid depending upon which of old Henry's fantasies you happen to be watching.

Henry, by the way, is Matthew Douglas who has to go from ancient and bumbling old duffer to a man in his prime and, well, not quite as bumbling, in the blink of a phrase. Helping him hold his end up in the diplomatic whirl is no nonsense sister Gwen, Emily Bowker and his manservant Bennett played with a superior air of indifference by Giles Taylor.

The play has plenty of references to The Importance of Being Earnest including some parodies and running jokes along with recurring Stoppard themes of the relationship between art, revolution and  politics. For all the cast, but particularly for Douglas and Davey, the play demands a tremendous feat of memory. Stoppard does not really write as people speak which means it requires actors to learn dialogue which does not quite trip naturally off the tongue.

We even have a song suddenly popping up out of nowhere with a duet between Gwen and Cicely, a parody of  Mister Gallagher and Mister Shean, as they both battle it out over Tristan not knowing there are actually enough Tristans to go round in any case.

The original song incidentally was the theme song of Vaudeville comedians Edward Gallagher and Al Shean, uncle of the Marx brothers, and was a big hit in the 1922 Ziegfeld Follies.

Journalists learn to make every word count and like writers use words as the brick to build ideas, thoughts and narrative. It is what the words say that is important not the words themselves.

I always get the feeling that Stoppard is fascinated with words and language and uses them more like an modern artist uses colours, mixing them up to see what comes out, splashing them on a canvas for an effect. He also likes clever word play and literary jokes and puns, and throwing in facts which may, or may not, be true which can all come at the expense of the narrative.

Travesties was beautifully acted, the dialogue quick-fire, at times it was very funny, costumes and set were wonderful and you had to marvel at what was a masterly piece of theatre – it was all very clever and thoroughly enjoyable except it was difficult to see either the point or purpose. A play is a journey to that final curtain when all has been revealed. Somehow in this one you reach the end but you are not really sure how you got there or indeed why. 

Roger Clarke

The Importance of Being Earnest review

Travesties runs until 22-10-11 alongside The Importance of Being Earnest. Check the rep website (click below) for individual dates of performances.

Henry Carr, the central character in Travesties, did exist, and although he was not the consul, that was A. Percy Bennett, he did work for the consulate in Zurich after being invalided out of the Army earlier in the war.

Carr also appeared as Algernon in a Zurich production of The Importance of Being Earnest for The English Players Company for which Joyce was the business manager. He was apparently very good but fell out with Joyce after the production claiming that he had not been paid enough and was owed for a suit had had bought to wear on stage. Joyce countered by claiming he was owed for tickets Carr had taken but had not paid for. The case went to court and the judge found for them both on their separate claims, so both won and lost.

Joyce had the final, and permanent, word though with parodies of both Bennett and Carr popping up as minor characters in Ulysses with Carr portrayed as an obscene, drunken English soldier in Dublin's Red Light district in Episode 15, Circe, which, ironically, gave Carr a measure of immortality as one of the trivial facts about the life of James Joyce.

Carr was certainly in Zurich at the same time as Lenin and Tzara but there is no record or indication that he ever met either of them.

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