‘Travesty’ has two meanings: a legal injustice, or else a parody. It’s really not possible to give away the plot, but I’ll leave it at this: Travesties, written by Tom Stoppard and directed by Bea Udale-Smith, explores the full range of this loaded term.
The opening minutes of the play are disorienting for an unfamiliar audience. An old, hunched Henry Carr, played by the masterful Lee Simmonds, trudges slowly around the stage in a wrinkled bathrobe as three helpers whirl around. Sometimes they mime his words, sometimes they move furniture around with a strange desperation. Simmonds sends the audience into a riot through the most economical of gestures – a grunt, an expression, a word – ensuring at the same time that the butt of the joke is not old age itself.
The stage direction demonstrates that Henry Carr’s recollection is fraught, fractured by dementia, and this is where Travesties really shines. The three helpers, it becomes clear, are the keepers of memory, moving the furniture of the mind. When the reality of Carr’s recollection becomes strained, too burdened by falsehoods, a low, ominous sound saturates the stage. Lights begin to flash, and the scene resets like a tape recorder rewound, with the helpers scaffolding the scene. Carr himself often sits behind a screen, obscured to the audience just as his memory is obscure to himself.
James Joyce, played by Kate Weir, and Tristan Tzara, played by Julia Pilkington, are beautifully eccentric: Joyce wears his trademark cane, hat and glasses, suave and pretentious, and Tzara, fully clad in red velvet, bounces about furiously, while expounding upon the tenets of Dada. It is particularly pleasurable to watch these two argue, which varies from piggishly insulting each other’s nationalities in the most vulgar terms, to defending the relative merits of their own art. Unfortunately the character of Lenin, played by Staś Butler, gets short-shafted, more by direction than by ability, crippled by a relatively weak second act in general.
At something like an hour and forty-five minutes long, the first act of this production of Travesties is a behemoth, in both ambition and length. It might have been better to end there. The curtains on the first act fall at a perfectly chilling time, but the chemistry between characters in the second act is lacking. Even when supported by strong individual actors, such as Carr and Cicely Carruthers, played by Emma Howlett, it is difficult to truly believe these characters fall in love before our eyes. But the end of Travesties redeems this relationship, and the last scene is an image burned into my retinas: one of pathos but not necessarily of pity.