Tuesday, 4 October 2016
by Tom Stoppard
The Biggest Bet
Life is drawing to an end for Henry Carr. He's not so much forgetful or senile as bloody annoyed. He obviously wants to join the ranks of the respected, those who knew and encouraged the genius which manifested itself in Zurich during World War One.
The only trouble is that the genius, acclaimed by a deluge of accolades by all and sundry (ok, by those in publishing and academia - we're safe as the genius himself made fun of them), is a certain Mr James Joyce (1882 -1941). We're at the start of Travesties, a 1974 play written by Tom Stoppard.
Now Henry (Tom Hollander) is forcing himself to join the Joyce (played here by Peter McDonald) bandwagon, minueting around possible biographies. He rehearses different plausible versions of the past as if preparing evidence for a court case - or at least in case he is quizzed by a publisher, literary editor or reader. Wavering between eulogy and fury.
"Memories of James Joyce. James Joyce As I Knew Him. The James Joyce I Knew. Through The Courts With James Joyce .. To those of us who knew him, Joyce's genius was never in doubt ... an amazing intellect ..." until we get to "... in short, a liar and a hypocrite, a tight-fisted, sponging fornicating drunk not worth the paper ..."
Then on to future Soviet leader Lenin (Forbes Mason) out to commandeer artistic pursuits for the revolutionary ideals on whom, Carr having outlived them all, can only rue the day that he never laid a bet when they all lived in Zurich. Along with Romanian Tristan Tzara (Freddie Fox), founder of "anti-art" - er - art movement Da da.
As you may have gathered, this is a genre of memory play. Stoppard has taken a footnote in the magisterial Richard Ellman 1959 biography of James Joyce in which Henry Carr appears and spun it into Travesties. Carr, who like Joyce had worked in a bank, was an ex-soldier, invalided out of combat, working in a minor British consular role.
Joyce recruited Carr to play Algernon ("the other one" in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest) on an amateur basis in an acting troupe of which Joyce was business manager. However, the whole affair ended in acrimony for Carr and Joyce - and in the Zurich district courts with each in the hands of lawyers.
Directed by Patrick Marber, this is essentially a high-brow farce set in Carr's lodgings and Zurich public library which like the earlier Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead becomes a play within a classic play. This time it's The Importance Of Being Earnest intricately intertwined in the action.
As in literary memoirs where fact and fiction interweave, Wilde's Gwendolen (Amy Morgan) is Carr's sister who ends up as amenuensis to the great man in this tale. That is, Joyce relies on her as he dictates Ulysses (in which Joyce exacted revenge on Carr for claiming he was owed money for his costume and allegedly libelling the author - that damn fact and fiction again!).
Meanwhile Wilde's Cecily (Clare Foster) is turned into a Zurich librarian (although in this travesty changes later on into a more male donnish lecturer on the Russian Revolution). Tristan Tzara falls for her but has to invent in Wildean manner a less radical brother due to her conservative inclinations.
"Confused?", you probably will be. Unlike Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead, the possible tragic and human consequences of war and putting theory into practice feel mightily submerged in the wordplay and literary allusions.
Nevertheless the consequences are there. For in one sense or another, Zurich is conveyed as a city of refugees and political manipulation where art, politics and historical events of the past all too easily solidify in a record which puts a selective import on disparate strands.
For while we may laugh at Carr's inadequate ramblings when putting together his own book, they are also recognizable as precisely the sort of literary memoirs which are the currency of literary and academic lionization.
And Switzerland's position in wartime seemingly divorced from the conflict is always there. As is Carr's butler Bennett (Tim Wallers) with his succinct diplomatic bag newspaper summaries of the situation. In reality, Bennett was in charge of Carr and the consulate in Zurich, so here as butler he is is literally a "public servant". Even if his transformation into a PG Wodehouse type character also has resonance.
It feels both a problem and a strength that our sympathies tend to turn towards Carr as an uncanonized character in this gallery of secular saints. Nevertheless, the play relies on an inordinate amount of background knowledge which, speaking frankly, hardly seems part of the mainstream in our twentieth first century internet world.
The detailed care lavished on the set and costumes, the timing and entrances and exits, the merging of Finnegans Wake language into Carr's muddled or maybe experimental recollections make this almost a biblical theatrical text in itself. Yet it's the visuals which stick in the mind, despite quickfire, fine performances by the cast.
Carr's torment and disgust at Joyce's undisputed genius held us - the other characters filtered through Carr's mind perhaps seem less original in our own quickfire, algorithmic world. This feels now very much a play put together rather than organically grown. Lenin and his wife Nadya (Sarah Quist) may be deliberately distanced with dialogue taken from books Carr has read to make up for being in their proximity without meeting them but this adds to the collage effect.
We have to say the current public exposure of the coopting of artists into political partisanship makes the juxtapositions a little old hat now. But, it is true, a hat which like wars and revolutions and Henry Carr's boater in The Importance Of Being Earnest, always needs to be paid for. So it's a quickfire kerching! amber light from TLT and her very own car (without the double r) critic!