Posts Tagged ‘Tom Stoppard’

Review – Travesties – Menier Chocolate Factory

November 12, 2016

It is over a month since I have seen this play and I am still so enthused by how brilliant it is that I had to make sure to get some sort of record of it in my blog. Fortunately, Travesties is transferring to the Apollo starting February 3rd so you now have a chance to indulge if you missed out on the Menier run.

And an indulgence this most surely is: Travesties had me feeling like every book I’d read, every movie I’d seen, and every play I’d been to in the last thirty years had all just come together in a big WHOOP of fission action and blown up into a bigger experience than I had any right to expect from a night in the theater. My useless degree in political theory, my teenaged obsession with the Smiths (and Oscar Wilde), my failed attempt to read Ulysses after Alison Bechdel recommended it … not to mention my years of self-teaching about art (no room for that in an American high school education) and even my little trip to the Bauhaus museum in Berlin this summer … yes, all of these things finally came into play as I was able to laugh heartily at a series of very clever jokes and have a right good time doing it. It was like reading “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” and getting it without having to read 200 footnotes to explain everything.

So what was I getting? The wordplay and froth of Wilde; a scene conducted entirely in limerick; some convenient mistaken identities; Edwardian sexual highjinks; a reading of a notorious scene from Ulysses that bore a hysterical similarity to the best known scene of When Harry Met Sally (and had a bonus joke at the end); an actress dancing on a table; lectures on the role of art in the communist society; and more, so much more! (The plot is some kind of nonsense about the British ambassador to Switzerland getting involved in James Joyce’s production of The Importance of Being Ernest that took place during the World War One, when both Lenin and the Dadaists were hiding out in neutral Switzerland and, according to the invention of the playwright, meeting up in the town library. There’s just enough real to make this farce of false hold together, but it’s really much more fun to just go for the ride rather than dissect any historical inaccuracies; this is about a night at the theater, not closely observing any sort of “facts.” The ambassador is supposed to have a crush on the librarian, who is a committed communist, but it’s probably best to not going into the details lest you be distracted from the fun.)

The truly impressive thing about this evening was how high energy it all way, with the actors themselves seeming flawlessly on top of every line they said. In fact, it was all executed with a perfection that made me leap to my feet at the end; for it seems to me that only here, in London, could we have such a concentration of talent that this play, which could just be overwhelming, in fact came of as frothy fun executed at the peak of perfection. And there was the whole audience jammed in there and loving it, bringing their own wide-ranging minds to a night of the exact opposite of low brow entertainment. I left loving my fellow Londoners, loving my lovely London actors, and feeling joyous about the wonderful opportunities this city presents for me to feel like life can be truly lived well here. This was without doubt the best show that 2016 will have on offer, and I am sure that I will remember it for a very long time … although possibly not long enough for me to ever get through Ulysses.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Tuesday, October 5th, 2016. The Menier run closes on November 19th but you can book those sweet tickets for the Apollo now!)

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Review – Hapgood – Hampstead Theater

December 10, 2015

The Hampstead is right in its happy place with this productionl of Hapgood, a revival of a Stoppard work from the balancing point in his career where he was still riding the line between intellectual inquiry and entertainment in his plays. Written twenty years after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead but a mere five years before Arcadia, Hapgood comes from a richly productive time in Stoppard’s life where I imagine a little dalliance in something light seemed like a refreshing change. So for the audience, we get a fast-paced night of guns, deceit, and triple crosses, with some chewy lectures on particle physics that must have seemed zingily fresh when new but which come across as a bit quaint post-Constellations (I mean, who doesn’t know about Heisenberg and make jokes about dead cats in a box these days?). It’s idea for the Hampstead crowd, which I fancy considers itself up on intellectual concerns yet still desirous of entertainment whilst in the theater: they wants jokes that they can feel smug about laughing at – but they still want jokes.

Hapgood posits a single mother working for MI6 in charge of important operations as the cold war is winding itself up. We are given a few mysteries (none of which is how did a woman advance so far in those less-enlightened days; another is how did a “bit of rough” become an expert in the experimental application of dark matter?), most of which center around “who is loyal to whom,” with “whom” being either a country or (more interestingly) a person. The loyalties of the various spies within the agency are under scrutiny, and we, the audience, debate which of the various spies is loyal to which of their coworkers and which to the UK/US versus Russia. We are also given a mystery about an exchange of briefcases in a bathroom at the beginning of the show, and a delightful logic puzzle that introduces the concept of twinnage as a solution for someone being in two places at the same place; does it make the math work? Interval drinks while we debate.

Lisa Dillon has a great time playing top spy Mrs Hapgood, cheering her son on in his rugby games in one scene, repulsing ex-lover(s?) in a shooting gallery in the next. Fellow spy Blair (Tim McMullan) doesn’t seem nearly as well rounded by comparison, but his own woodenness was nicely rounded by the extravagant emotions of Russian physicist Kerner (Alec Newman). I suspect Stoppard cared more about his character than nearly any of the others, as he’s the one used to spout off most of the scientific blather; it seems simultaneously normal and somewhat boring to listen to someone discuss that passionately his work, and I think Stoppard must have wanted him to seem very real; in some ways more real than everyone else in the play. He is the one we are meant to observe; as we focus on him, the direction of all of the other (unobserved) particles becomes merely a question of proper equations, this relationship x this chemistry = this outcome.

Through a thirty-year lens, this play has become charming and nostalgic; politics and science and plays have all moved on since this was written, and it seems a cuddly little toy from a day when people thought these things really matters. Stoppard doesn’t care about making his plays watchable anymore; I look to Scarlett Thomas when I want to think about the underpinnings of the world. But for a good night out – at just under 2 1/2 hours running time – Hapgood does deliver the goods.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Decmeber 8, 2015. It continues through January 23rd. Might I suggest you consider the Caryl Churchill play at the National if you really want something intellectually challenging: it’s a bargain at £15 a pop.)