Dada? Run, Run!


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.

About williamstafford

Novelist (Brough & Miller, sci fi, historical fantasy) Theatre critic and Actor - I can often be found walking the streets of Stratford upon Avon in the guise of the Bard! View all posts by williamstafford

4 responses to “Dada? Run, Run!

  • WinceyWillis

    No word mincing there then. That is what I admire about your writing, you are utterly reliable. You educate and sometimes eviscerate.

  • Ivan Pilov

    i’ve never seen this play on stage but the text made the opposite impression from what you’ve written.
    Could you say that it might be, say, the theatre’s fault in failing to act the play correctly?

    P.S. I’m asking ’cause I’m studying Tom Stoppard’s works from the linguistic point of view and various feedback on his plays is of real importance to me.

    • williamstafford

      I think Stoppard’s plays are better on the page than on the stage. On the page the linguistic cleverness works really well, but having to hear actors spouting all the verbal tricks is in my experience rather boring. The Stoppard play I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed in performance is his spy thriller “Hopgood” – in which he restricts his cleverness to the twists and turns of the plot, rather than just trying to dazzle like a precocious but gifted child at a grown-ups’ party. His cleverness, for me, invariably stifles the dramatic interest his ideas might have.

      • Ivan Pilov

        Thank you for the quick reply!

        I can quite agree with you. When I did the analysis of R&GAD lots of language tricks and puns became obvious only from the text, while on stage or in the movie they’re not clear.

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