The Old Rep, Birmingham, Wednesday 21st September, 2011
I have had an aversion to the works of celebrated playwright Tom Stoppard ever since I saw a turgid production of The Real Thing in Nottingham, in which Tom Conti chewed the scenery and I chewed off my own leg in order to escape.
But like many others, I like to kid myself I am open-minded and so I went along to the opening night of Travesties hoping to be cured of my Stoppardophobia, or at least to increase my tolerance levels. On paper, the play looks promising: Lenin, James Joyce and Dadaist Tristan Tzara all recollected by an actor who was playing Algernon in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest in Zurich at the time. Each of those worthies is interesting in their own right. There would be elements of Dada within the play. There would be limericks. There would be Wildean epigrams, both authentic and pastiche… What’s not to like?
It turned out there was nothing to like. Nothing. The script is dense with wordplay, peppered with Latin and other languages. It is intellectual showing-off of the worst kind, like someone showing you they not only compiled the Sunday Times crossword but they completed it too.
I don’t mind the absurd. I enjoy the randomness and irrelevance of Dadaist art but here it is all too calculated. Scenes are re-set and repeated, lifting heavily from the plot of …Earnest with all the delicacy of hobnail boots stomping through a flower bed. Only one scene made me sit up: the characters, dressed as a sort of hybrid Dervish meets traffic cone, speak entirely in limericks. But this soon descended into the knowing declamations of a university revue.
The whole enterprise was unengaging, unamusing and tiresome beyond endurance. Whatever there is to be said about the nature of art and artists during the Great War can be delivered in a more entertaining and absorbing manner than this, I’m sure. Cleverness for its own sake does not work. It has all the dazzle and wow factor of a slideshow of someone else’s fireworks.
When, after one of the longest hours of my life, the interval came at last, I nudged my way through the pseuds in the foyer, feeling like that little boy alone in his realisation that the Emperor is stark bollock naked. Life is too short, I concluded, to sacrifice another hour of what precious time I might have left to this turgid nonsense, so I chewed off my other leg and buggered off home.