Tom Stoppard was in the audience for last night's preview of his 1974 play Travesties, and I thought he looked as delighted as the rest of us. Patrick Marber's revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory of one of his funniest plays fizzes from start to finish like a glass of champagne, or possible hock and seltzer. It's a triumph, led by Tom Hollander in the role of Henry Carr, the role created by John Wood in the original production by the RSC.
I didn't see that one, but I remember the 1993 RSC revival at the Barbican by Adrian Noble, with Antony Sher in the title role. Like old Henry Carr, my memories are fuzzy and I didn't write a theatre blog back then, but I remember being dazzled by Stoppard's verbal and intellectual ingenuity. I'm still a huge fan of his writing, which has brought me a whole series of magical experiences, ever since I saw the original production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in the late 1960s.
For those who don't know the play, it is based on the slenderest of factual premises -- that James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin and the Dadaist Tristan Tzara were all knocking around neutral Zurich at the height of World War One, though not necessarily at the same time. The one historical fact is that Joyce, business manager of an English theatre company in Zurich which staged Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, got involved in a lawsuit with an Englishman named Henry Carr concerning ticket sales and a pair of trousers.
Stoppard's play is a surreal comic fantasy in which the elderly Henry Carr reminisces about his imaginary encounters with Joyce, Lenin and Tzara. The dialogue is a sustained pastiche of Wilde's most famous comedy, but the play is far more than a frothy comic mixture. Stoppard has a serious argument to make about the nature of art and the artist, pitting Joyce against Tzara.
Marber has assembled a terrific cast, with Hollander outstanding. Clare Foster as Cecily, Freddie Fox as Tzara, Tim Wallers as the butler Bennett, Amy Morgan as Gwendolen and Peter McDonald as Joyce are all very funny indeed. Forbes Masson as Lenin and Sarah Quist as his wife negotiate their way successfully through dialogue in Russian, but the writing doesn't give them much to chew on. Lenin's part is a collection of political speeches rather than a character, and he stands outside the main action.
One of the joys of this production for Stoppard fans is Marber's interview with the playwright in the programme. Tongue in cheek, he quizzes Stoppard like a new member of a writing group, asking 'What colour ink do you use?' Stoppard replies: 'Blue black. Unlined paper, of course.' Marber is of course no mean writer himself, and I vividly remember a production of his Dealer's Choice at the Menier nearly a decade ago. The interview reveals that Stoppard's real sympathy is with Joyce, rather than Tzara (no surprise there) but it also highlights the extent to which this is a play about time and memory. Like his late and great contemporary Harold Pinter, Stoppard is writing about the unreliability of the way we remember what happened in our own lives.
I get the feeling that for a younger generation of writers today, Stoppard is seen as rather old hat -- perhaps more so than Pinter. That's a serious mistake. There's a lot for any writer to learn from in Stoppard's early plays, not just in his exuberant use of language and his intellectual gymnastics. Marber is also a brilliant theatrical technician, and his fast-paced version of the play will re-establish its status as a classic.