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National Business Review Review 26 July 2002



Magpie Stoppard at his mocking, theatrical best
John Daly-Peoples

* Travesties, by Tom Stoppard, sponsored by KPMG Legal, Auckland Theatre Company, at the Maidment Theatre, to August 17

Tom Stoppard is the great contemporary theatrical magpie carefully selecting scraps from the world of theatre and literature which he reassembles to build a new and vital work.

Travesties, first produced in 1974, is set in Zurich during World War I.

Among the characters are the solid historical figures of Lenin, James Joyce and the Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara, who all lived in Zurich in 1917 but never met.

Stoppard has tweaked history a bit by having them working together in the Zurich Public Library.

He adds another minor historical figure, the British consular official Henry Carr, who through his own unreliable memoirs brings the three characters together.

Carr did in fact meet James Joyce, who convinced him to play the role of Algernon in a Zurich production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. Joyce subsequently also included Carr as a character in Ulysses which he was writing at the time.

As well as the historical figures there are invented characters such as Carr's sister Gwendolen and the local librarian Cecily, both named after characters from The Importance of Being Earnest.

Much of Travesties revolves around and refers to that play in dialogue, narrative and characters. At one point Lenin even makes his speech at the Finland Station using a style of Wildean speech.

Stoppard also has his characters converse in limericks or in a bantering vaudeville rhyming interchange.

Rarely do we encounter prolonged passages of prosaic dialogue.

The play is irritatingly clever. Even though you get most of the jokes there is such a clutter of allusions, references and quotations that you know you have missed out on some clever literary jousting. This is intellectual snobbery bordering on the ridiculous.

In bringing together a range of real and invented characters to inhabit the same time and space the playwright is able to play God with history, literature and our collective memories.

As with his other plays, Stoppard has a raft of ideas he plays with. In Travesties it is about that nature of social, political and artistic revolution. There is the ambivalence about the importance of revolution with the arch-revolutionary Lenin ranting about art and the role it should play in the service of the revolution. There is also an outburst about Lenin's distrust of music because of the emotional impact it has on him and the dislike of modern art for the confusion it inflicts.

Stoppard is like a magician who takes the audience into his confidence to show them how the illusion or trick works, only to reveal his explanation is a further deception.

Tristan Tzara's magician-like demonstration of cutting up lines of poetry and reassembling them is also closely linked to the Stoppard's technique of undercutting and juxtaposition.

Director Raymond Hawthorne displays a perceptive understanding of the play in the way he has translated Stoppard's interest in the conflict between the realism we allow the theatre to beguile us with and its obvious illusionist tricks. Several of the sequences open in a half-light with swirling mists of memory that enhance the theatricality of the production.

He has created an environment in which theatre and the remembrance and the reality of history collide in confusion, not unlike our own reassembled memories of past events.

In post-absurdist works like Travesties audiences respond to the balance of the serious issues, the literary wordplays and the comic. Hawthorne's approach clearly understands these aspects given his own long association with the theatre.

There are also traces of the director himself inserted in the speech patterns, the grand acting and the dramatic appearances and exits.

Paul Gittins (Lenin), Michael Hurst (James Joyce) and Ross Girven (Tristan Tzara) are all convincing as they trail about the stage awash with manuscripts and letters, dropping, losing and swapping their paper-borne ideas.

They present just the right mix of actual historical figure and the actor's tense awareness of playing a role.

Newcomer Michael Edwards, playing the part of Carr the Consular Officer in his 20s as well as in his 70s, is brilliantly convincing. Either by luck or design there is an added subtlety in the way Edwards plays the older man, using all the basic techniques of the hammy actor so we are aware of the artifice of his portrayal.

Sophia Hawthorne as Gwendolen, looking like a young Edith Sitwell, plays the part with grand gestures and impeccable timing.

Anna Meech gives an engaging performance as the librarian Cecily Bennet. The butler who shows "alarming signs of irony" is played with a casual urbanity by Ross Duncan.

Stoppard gives most of the characters another dimension to add confusion and theatricality. Rather than give more depth to a character, he provides them with an unconnected facet to their lives.

Sometimes this is mere playing with names so that Tristan Tzara calls himself Jack to woo Cecily and Carr, thinking Joyce is a Christian name, initially believes the author to be his sister's girlfriend.

Not only does Carr have younger and older alter egos, he also intrudes into the play as Algernon and in that part is also mistaken as Tristan Tzara's brother.

Cecily, the prim librarian, suddenly turns into a strip tease dancer, cavorting on the library counter quoting revolutionary phrases.

The design by Tracey Grant complements the play. The two rooms of the set are isolated on the stage as though still incomplete.

Scaffolding and obvious lighting operators intrude into the set so we are aware of the mechanics of the staging.

The play, as its title suggests, is a travesty, a ludicrous imitation of a significant works, satirising art and politics in a string of connected one-liners.

The Beckett monologues, Shakespearean sonnets, and references to Joyce's Ulysses and Homer's Odyssey are all picked over by the magpie and assembled into a vast riddle. Nothing is regarded seriously except the jokes and all of those are travesties as well.

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