Lloyd Evans Lloyd Evans

Box of tricks

Plus: No’s Knife at the Old Vic, made up of a collection of Beckett’s prose pieces from the 1950s, is for Beckett fundamentalists only

Travesties is a multi-layered confection of art, song, literature and pastiche. Tiny snippets of it are true. In Zurich, in 1917, James Joyce directed a production of The Importance of Being Earnest featuring a British diplomat, Henry Carr, in the role of Algy. Joyce and Carr fell out over the costume budget and became embroiled in a brief legal wrangle. That’s the starting-point for Tom Stoppard’s dazzling intellectual pantomime which features cameos from Lenin and Tristan Tzara, both residents of Zurich at the time. Tzara was an experimental vandal whose penchant for slicing sonnets into pieces was taken up by copycats and flowered, or degenerated, into the Dada movement. Lenin, in 1917, was a penniless translator who within months would become the undisputed ruler of the world’s largest nation.

The plot is a little hard to follow but the fun lies in the play’s skilful arrangement of literary trifles and in Stoppard’s impish paradoxical humour. An erudite butler serves breakfast every morning while summarising the latest news from St Petersburg in the tweedy tones of a history professor. When Henry hears that the revolution is inspired by class he rejoices that Russia’s aristocrats have finally decided to sock it to the proles. Henry, besotted with fine tailoring, describes a shrapnel wound received on the Western Front in terms of the damage done to his hand-sewn seams rather than to his person.

But there’s more here than just playful effervescence. Tom Hollander turns Henry from a skittish buffoon into a figure of pathos and tragic grandeur. His speech lamenting the dead of the Great War is almost musical in its emotive power. And there are flashes of real anger in the rhetoric directed by Stoppard at Tzara and his self-important comrades on the avant garde.

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