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The Age review of Travesties by Tom Stoppard

Monday 17 June

Cameron Woodhead


Highbrow types won’t need reminding that Sunday was Bloomsday. Named after the central character in James Joyce’s Ulysses, it’s the date on which that towering monument of modernist fiction was set, and it has long been an annual event when the literati gather to celebrate the Irish writer’s life and legacy.

fortyfivedownstairs is hosting a season of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, itself a masterpiece which focuses, inter alia, on Joyce’s writing of Ulysses in Zurich during World War I. It’s as challenging and rewarding to experience as Joyce’s novel is to read.

Travesties‘ brilliance lies in the comic collision of intellectual burlesque and pointy-headed aesthetic philosophy with surrealist theatre, musical hijinks and radical politics. It’s all winningly scribbled across a palimpsest of Wildean wit (after all, the play hinges on an unlikely revival of The Importance of Being Earnest mounted by Joyce himself).

Switzerland in 1917 was a hotbed of artistic and political dissidence, and Travesties yokes together Joyce (Johnathan Peck), the founder of Dadaism, Tristan Tzara (Matthew Connell), and Russian communist Vladimir Lenin (Syd Brisbane) – all of whom took refuge in Zurich at the time.

The action is framed through the unreliable memoirs of Henry Carr (Dion Mills), an attache to the British consulate who becomes unwittingly embroiled in the crucible of high modernism, events leading up to the Russian Revolution, and a production of Earnest that mirrors in life the romantic shenanigans and courtship contortions of Wilde’s comedy of manners. Behind the scenes, Carr’s younger sister Gwendolen (Joanna Halliday) falls in love with Tzara, and Carr falls for the librarian Cecily (Gabrielle Sing), setting the stage for a farcical Wildean pastiche.

This is an admirably ambitious and talented production, though uneven and perhaps under-rehearsed. If its reach exceeds its grasp, the best of it is secure enough to shine.

The natural comic gifts of Tref Gare as Bennett, Carr’s manservant, will delight anyone, as will Sing’s radiant wit as a cut-glass Cecily with a mad Bolshevik streak. (There’s a glorious hilarity to her catfight with Gwendolen, performed as Gilbert & Sullivan-style operetta.)

Director Jennifer Sarah Dean ensures each performer has moments in the sun, though the gear-shifts between erudite dialectic and outright farce are not so well-oiled as they could be. Arguments about art and its place in the world occasionally displace mirth rather than form part of the funny fabric of the work.

Despite rough edges this production holds your attention. If you haven’t seen Travesties before, you’ll be glad to have witnessed this dazzlingly smart comedy performed live.

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