“Dada! Dada!” So yells Tristan Tzara (Freddie Fox) in Travesties, one of those Tom Stoppard plays that generous amounts of culture already ingrained before entering the theatre auditorium would be beneficial to understand what on earth is going on. There’s no suspending disbelief at the door here, at least not for me. “You remember Dada?” asks Henry Carr (Tom Hollander), so convincingly that at the performance I attended, a woman audibly responded, “Yes.” She must have been ancient: I know, broadly speaking, what is meant by ‘Dada’ but I’m not old enough to recall a 1910s/1920s avant-garde style of artistic expression.
Now, I’ve read James Joyce’s Ulysses. I don’t really get it. I’m not sure it’s meant to be ‘gotten’, as it were, it being (to me) an unwieldy stream of consciousness rather than a properly structured book. The reference to “yes I said yes I will Yes” – the last few words of the ‘novel’ (inverted commas deliberate) were instantly recognisable when they were quoted, and went completely over the heads of anyone who hasn’t read Ulysses. Similar things happened with repeated references to Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, and Lenin and the Russian Revolution. But, as Cat Stevens once sang in ‘Father and Son’, “You’re still young, that’s your fault,” and it’s for people to get acquainted with the topics and themes in the play in order to appreciate its wit and social commentary to its fullest extent.
This goes against the grain of my fervent belief that someone can read around a play’s topics if they want to, but ultimately, ‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’ (that is, a reasonably intelligent person but by no means a specialist on a play’s topics) should be able to walk into a play not knowing anything about it, and come out not completely perplexed by what just took place. I am assured by people who were indeed left baffled that they still enjoyed the performance.
War, according to Tzara, “is capitalism with the gloves off”, and it’s the sort of statement that infuriates Carr – elsewhere, Tzara himself loses his rag with James Joyce (Peter McDonald) after a long and wieldy philosophical discussion. It’s here that the script becomes most entertaining, with a decent use of vocabulary rarely seen these days: most insults are lazily laced with crude swearing rather than anything meaningful or directly relevant to the conversation that led to the offended party being so incensed. Some comedy is to be enjoyed in Cecily Carruthers (Clare Foster) and her over-elaborate translation of the (apparent) Russian spoken by Lenin (Forbes Masson) and Nadya (Sarah Quist). Carruthers also engages in a sparkling vaudeville number with Gwendolen Carr (Amy Morgan).
It’s immensely clever, but I couldn’t shake off the feeling that this was all a bit too much to handle in a single show, a near-continuous verbal assault on the senses. It almost made me want to join Tzara in yelling “Dada! Dada!” at the top of my lungs. Nonetheless, it’s engrossing and it’s humorous, and worth the intellectual challenge.