first night

Travesties

Rosie Boscawen finds Peculius Stage's production of Tom Stoppard's comedy is anything but a travesty...

One of the most satisfying things about Peculius Stage’s production of Travesties is the uncanny resemblance between David Head (Lenin) and the real-life Lenin himself. Also, I ought to mention the fantastically strong performances from all members of director Andrew Macfarlane’s cast. It is not faultless, but as a group they complement one another effectively, so that what might be melodrama is in fact pure comedy. 

Travesties is the story – or memory – of the friendships and relationships of James Joyce, Tristan Tzara, Lenin, and their women, seen through the now failing eyes of Henry Carr, the British consul in Zurich in 1917, where the play is set. The play’s shifts in theatrical genre from slapstick-esque opening scene through soliloquy to something that could be from a musical are not unlike a passage written by James Joyce, one of its characters. The cast, however, move easily between them, with precise timing in the opening minutes ensuring a slick and powerful start.

Gareth Davies as Henry Carr is compelling. Without the larger-than-life personality of Joyce or the Dadaist Tristan Tzara, he nevertheless brings conversations to life with the vague, impressionistic gestures of the old man he plays. His relationship with his butler, Bennett (Oliver White), is endearing. White’s monotone recitals of the day’s news and telegrams are in perfect contrast to Davies’ unpredictable nature.

Acting out moments from his youth in his scenes with Harry Bresslaw’s Tristan Tzara, Davies is at once frustrated and sarcastic; he holds all the tensions of Carr’s personality in the same moment and slips from youth to old age with ease. Bresslaw’s exuberant first entrance makes full comic use of his long legs and is not forgotten quickly. Together with his impressive range of accents, it characterizes him as an eccentric who can’t quite be taken seriously. Although this ever-present comedy occasionally mars his anger, preventing us from believing Tzara’s sincerity in his Dadaist principles, it does not affect the portrayal of his relationship with Gwendolin, nor does it ruin his performance by any means.

The balance between the actors really shines through. James Joyce, played by Donnchadh O’Conaill, is stern and intimidating, and all without uttering a word (or limerick), achieving it simply by leaning on his walking stick, crossing one leg in front of the other and looking piercingly at with whomsoever he is conversing. He has a quiet self-confidence that powerfully contradicts Tzara’s ebullience, which allows him to laugh silently at the fact that he speaks predominantly in limerick, though not at the content of the rhymes. His variations in tone are generally strong, though there are moments in which he is angry that might benefit from a hint of the sardonic.

Lenin / David Head (they are interchangeable) is starkly different again. Macfarlane’s decision to portray him as a by and large quiet person allows his political views to echo all the louder. The use of a red spotlight when he speaks adds to the theatrical genre medley, as well as alluding to his communism. Head, like the rest of the cast, is adept at doing the police in different voices, though there was the odd slippage from Russian accent to the distinctly English.

As Lenin contrasts with the other male characters in his quietness, so Nadezhda Lenin, his wife (Andra Catincescu), does so with the female characters. Gemma Nelson and Tasha Cowley as Gwendolin and Cecily respectively reflect the characteristics of the men for whom they work; Nelson recites Shakespeare’s Sonnet XVIII beautifully – beautifully enough to convert Bresslaw’s Tzara, who stands for all things anti-art. The two girls’ ‘musical’ scene is wonderfully orchestrated in tone, timing and blocking, and brings the play full circle back to more comic modes of theatre.

This is a strange play and I won’t pretend that I entirely understood it. It is also one of the strongest productions you will see this year in Durham, in terms of cast, direction and technical features – I haven’t even mentioned the projections… I’m not quite sure why Bresslaw dropped his accent after the first scene, nor am I convinced that I like the set, but I am sure that these things don’t particularly matter. So, if you’re in the mood for a sprinkling of the brilliantly comic and the faintly surreal, you know where to go…

3 December 2010

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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