Thursday, 13 June 2019

Travesties - Theatre Review

What: Travesties
When: 12 - 23 June 2019
Where: fortyfive downstairs
Written by: Tom Stoppard
Directed by: Jennifer Sarah Dean
Performed by: Syd Brisbane, Milijana Cancar, Matthew Connell, Tref Gare, Joanna Halliday, Dion Mills, Johnathan Peck, and Gabrielle Sing
Set by: Jordan Stack
Costumes by: Rhiannon Irving
Lighting by: Alex Blackwell
Sound by: Alex Toland
Stage Managed by: Kyra von Stiegler
Dion Mills, Johnathan Peck, and Joanna Halliday - photo by Christa Hill
Do you want to see a good old English romp but are sick to death of Shakespeare? If so head on down to fortyfive downstairs and get an evening full of Stoppard wit with Bloomsday's production of Travesties.

Travesties is being directed by Melbourne Shakespeare Company's Jennifer Sarah Dean and much of the style and aesthetic of those productions (including cast and the work of costumiere Irving) are a part of this show, so even if you still love Shakespeare and go to the gardens every year you will get a kick out of this. On the other hand, Stoppard is a wordsmith too and not limited by the artistic and social reductions of Elizabethan England - and he does not have the benefit of having been performed so often the work is seared into our brains like branding on cattle - so you will have to challenge yourself to keep up and will probably even have to stay awake!

Stoppard (who you may know from works such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and After Magritte) is a British satirist who likes to take the artistic forms of other artists and craft them into conversations about social and philosophical ideas in the worlds of his plays. Shakespeare, Beckett, Magritte, etc - are all grist for his mill. In Travesties Stoppard probably hits the overload button though, drawing on Dadaism, Socialism, Wilde, Gilbert and Sullivan and, of course Joyce (thus the interest of Bloomsday).

This play references just about every artistic movement at the start of the 20th Century. Yes, it is too much and barely holds together with many theatrical flaws, but it is impossible to deny the mightiness of the ambition and the skill which is so evident. Unfortunately this is a play which requires the same ambition in staging and this production of Travesties lacks a vision to match Stoppard's. Dean's Travesties is pacy, smart, and well presented and performed but the ho hum factor merely highlights the difficulties in the work rather than celebrating them and opening the art to it's fullest glory.

Travesties is framed by Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, but it is really a dream play which lies deep within the realm of dadaism/surrealism. It is further projected forward by Joyce's unique writing experiment which became Ulysses. 

Ulysses is often talked about as a stream of consciousness work. It is that and so much more. Every chapter is written in a different style and Stoppard has told us Travesties was written with the idea of each scene being a different style. One of the great problems with theatre makers today is a lack of understanding of the range of theatrical styles and in this production whilst the actors work with this idea to some degree, the overall arch of the play does not shift and turn wildly as the construct demands and which also references the anti-art aspect of the Tristan Tzara (Connell) character. This includes all elements - lighting, sound, costume, set... I think this play is just to big for almost everyone involved.

Travesties centres around the historical truth that all the male characters were in Zurich during World War I and riffs on the conceit that they all somehow were involved with each other and become linked by a production of The Importance of Being Earnest and the newly constructed Zurich Central Library. The play is a whirlwind of ideas just as the city was a whirlwind of modern thinkers in a whirlwind of war. As the story unfolds ideas about what is war, what is art, and what is history clash, crash, and burn only to rise up from the embers again and again and again.

Although Dean has created an English drawing room farce rather than the biting satirical maelstrom Stoppard has written there are great performances and moments of glory. Connell demonstrates wonderful comic skills as Tzara and Halliday positively sparkles her way across the evening as a lively Gwendolen. Brisbane and Cancar are fantastic actors but this production (and perhaps Stoppard's writing) gives them little to do or be or say to move the story in any direction. To be honest I don't even know why Stoppard included Lenin's wife at all...

Manservant Bennett suffers from the same poor character development although Gare himself manages to steal many moments with clownish hilarity. Sing did a wonderful Wildean Cecily but I am not entirely sure she was playing Stoppard's Cecily... Having said that, her costume was probably the one most closely referencing the artistic aspects of the work. The character of Carr is a marathon and the sad truth is it is just too big for Mills.

The set (Stack) and lights (Blackwell) have hints of the exagerration needed for this play but something has gone terribly wrong with the sound design (Toland). There was something very soft coming out of the speakers (apart from the gramophone music which is fine), but it was so soft it was almost impossible to hear and what I did hear didn't seem to make sense in this world either?

As you can tell by now, I am a bit frustrated and confused about this production of Travesties. The theatre maker in me is frustrated by the possibilities in the work and confused by some of the artistic decisions which have been made. On the other had, Stoppard's work is witty and full of quotable quotes such as "causality is no longer fashionable owing to the war", "we're here because we're here", "the further left you go politically the more bourgeois they like their art", and "without art man was a coffee-mill: but with art, man - is a coffee-mill!"

If you love wordplay and strong ideas Travesties is an exciting night of theatre the likes of which we don't often get to see staged and it is worth going just to see a playwright allowed to go wild with his ideas (even if it is another Englishman - and I won't even touch gender politics...). An added bonus is you will get to see great actors do good jobs with intensely challenging material. There are a lot - and I mean a lot - of laughs to be had so don't be shy about it.

3 Stars

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