A Behind-the-Scenes Theatre Feature by Frances Devlin-Glass
Bloomsday in Melbourne is exceptionally excited to have secured the rights for one of the modern stage’s great comedies – Travesties by Tom Stoppard. Recent revivals in London (2016) and New York (2018) have given rise to extravagant hyperbole, even for New York:
- ‘A gushing waterfall of wordplay, a fine-tuned literary torrent that only begins by covering love, sex, war, memory, and Marxism’ (Entertainment Weekly);
- ‘ Screwball eggheads tear up the Library in Travesties….Senility is a joy ride in the exultant, London-born revival of Travesties…This account of a clash of three cultural titans (New York Times);
- ‘a merrily disjointed mix of political, social and artistic commentary flavored with verbal dexterity and tuneful music hall exuberance. …the soul of absurdist theatre’ (Broadway World);
- ‘The facets of Stoppard’s jewel-like play are overwhelmingly, even ostentatiously brilliant; the Irish Joyce is introduced in a scene that is written as a series of limericks. Yet in Patrick Marber’s well-judged and high-spirited revival, which the director first staged in London in 2016 (with Hollander and McDonald), the result is inviting rather than snobbishly exclusive, and the structural and verbal dazzle are offset with subtle suggestions of elegy. Even if you can’t solve it all as you watch, it’s a pleasure to engage with a production that does Travesties full justice.’ (TimeOut, NY)
This is the first time in its 26 year history that Bloomsday in Melbourne has not written its own script, which I have to own, is one of the sheerest pleasures of involvement in Bloomsday. And Bloomsday long ago performed Travesties in a living room in Melbourne – and it’s a very fond memory. So, securing the rights made it a must. Scriptwriters graciously ushered ‘modern theatre’s teacher’s pet’ to occupy the writer’s chair.
Why import a British play? Stoppard’s Travesties, like many of his plays, is inspired by a footnote in literary history — the fact that Joyce was the self-appointed producer of The Importance of Being Earnest in Zurich in 1918. Aware that French and German shows were on offer, he approached a minor official in the British Consulate, Henry Carr, to ensure that English language plays enjoyed some visibility, and because he saw potential in him as an actor. Joyce secured Carr’s support by offering him the lead role of Algernon. Whether this largesse paid off aesthetically is not known, but Carr was born to rule and extravagant with it, and subsequently took Joyce to court over payment for a pair of trousers (and extra tickets to the show) he had especially acquired for the purpose. Joyce won, and took his revenge on him in Ulysses giving Carr’s name to one of the thuggish police who want to arrest Stephen in Nighttown. Stoppard also gets to take it out on Carr by making him a trousers-fetishist.
This readership probably does not need to be reminded that mounting Wilde’s play was a subversive act on Joyce’s part: Earnest had just opened in London in the fashionable St James’s Theatre to huge acclaim when Oscar’s trial and imprisonment forced it off the stage in 1895 after only 83 performances. Taking Wilde’s name as author off the programme did not save this most scintillating now-classic comedy, despite its rapturous reception and its subsequent ensconcement as a canonical work of English and Irish theatre. Joyce’s championship of Wilde in Zurich in 1918 was edgy: he had been an advocate for him since 1909 when in a review on Salomé produced for Il Piccolo, he had consecrated him a martyr, a Christ figure. He was well aware of gay culture and sympathetic to it, feeling Wilde had paid a huge price for his homosexuality.
James Joyce fled to Switzerland from Trieste early in WWI, because to have remained, as his brother Stanislaus did, was to have been interned as an enemy alien. There was violence on the streets of Trieste (Austrians against Italian irredentists – these squabbles would be resolved in Italy’s favour after the war when Trieste became part of Italy), and Joyce’s deepest instincts were pacifist ones. He was at a personal nadir: the censorship battle over Dubliners had ground him down since 1905. It had been published, but not enough to earn him any royalties (the threshold was 500 and he’d sold only 499 copies, 120 of them to himself, as the publisher, Grant Richards, required) and he was out of work. But the relative tranquility of Zurich, and the intellectual stimulus, gave him the space to make serious progress on Ulysses, a more significant contribution to the war effort than the Wilde production (‘What did you do in the war?’ …. ‘I wrote Ulysses‘).
Stoppard’s play, then, takes as its trigger the Wilde production but it also draws on the historical presence in Zurich in 1917 of two other revolutionaries: Vladimir Lenin, about to set out for the Russian revolution by train, and the young Romanian Tristan Tzara – the inventor of an anarchic literary ‘ism’ in a period of many disruptive isms, Dadaism. The play raises questions about revolutions, about art and its uses and abuses, and it does so in an over-the-top comic mode. Parodies proliferate: Wilde gets a workout as the characters in the play get pressed into service as distorted refractions of Wilde’s characters; Tristan Tzara cuts up a Shakespearean sonnet and creates new poems, and attendant visual gags; there is more than a hint of Swiss music hall/cabaret/nightclub (such venues being the playgrounds of the Dadaist movement); and the maddest and most intimate chapter in Joyce’s Ulysses, the Ithaca chapter, has its weird uses for Stoppard. It’s in short, a Swiss farce with revolutionary intent, and even sports a Mr Sheen advertising moment.
Bloomsday is fortunate in having had many superb theatre directors, and in 2019, Jennifer Sarah Dean returns to direct again after her first season with Bloomsday in 2018 when she wrestled with the extreme end of Joyce’s literariness, a dramatisation of the Oxen of the Sun chapter, Holy Cow! She was easily equal to this most daunting of tasks, having herself been trained as a Shakespearean actor/director at The Globe Theatre (London), and as the founding creative Director and theatre director of Melbourne Shakespeare Company. Since her arrival in Melbourne only three years ago, she’s been busy with several sell-out open-air productions of Shakespeare per year, a national tour, and other theatre-based plays. The hallmarks of her skill as a director are well suited to directing Joyce: she delights in language, the more literary the better; she adores physical theatre and was brilliant in making it serve characterisation in Holy Cow!; she’s a history buff – she ensures the actors know the wider contexts; and she’s a comedy queen, essential for rendering Joyce’s goonishness. If you’re not laughing at and with Joyce, then you’re not getting it. It’s Bloomsday in Melbourne’s mission to make sure audiences get it, to democratise what is sometimes and erroneously styled as an élite literary taste. It’s that certainly, but it’s also accessible in a variety of ways for different kinds of readers.
Supporting Jen is again the miraculous costumier, Rhiannon Irving, who, since last year’s Bloomsday, has secured permanent work making costumes for the Australian Ballet. A passionate maker of superb garments, she’s another history buff, and can even make costumes speak comedy. She’s an over-achiever and had constructed most of the costumes for this show before rehearsals began. She revealed recently at the Meet and Greet with actors that she’s been doing designs for Travesties since her student days. It is one of her all-time favourite plays. Who knew? How lucky is Bloomsday. Purpose-built costumes are in the bag already.
Travesties is creating a buzz. Such a buzz that Bloomsday will run for an unprecedented 2 weeks.
Where: fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
When: 12 -23 June 2019. Monday to Saturday, 7.30pm; Sunday 16 June (Bloomsday), 3pm and 7.30pm and Sunday 23 June at 3pm.
Bookings: fortyfivedownstairs (theatre)or phone 03 9662 9966
Information: Bloomsday in Melbourne website