It might be nonsense, but at least it’s clever nonsense

A Theatre Review by Philip Harvey of  Bloomsday in

Johnathan Peck as James Joyce, decorated by a Dadaist. Photo by Christa Hill.

Melbourne’s production of Travesties by Tom Stoppard.

Directed by Jennifer Sarah Dean at fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane,  12-13 June 2019.

A novelist, a bolshevik, and a dadaist walked into a bar, is one way of getting the joke that is Travesties. Or it’s a demonstration of how The Importance of Being Earnest is a Marxist tract. Or it’s a slideshow of linguistic fireworks in which any amount of explosive art talk does not get in the way of a fizzing Wildean epigram. The inventor of this literary party game said last year in the New Yorker that ‘the play is a kind of luxury, in which you pretend that James Joyce was there in Zurich at the same time as Lenin and Tristan Tzara. It’s a kind of intellectual entertainment.’ Bloomsday in Melbourne chose to make Tom Stoppard’s play the centrepiece of this year’s festivities, being a cherished work amongst Joyce tragics.
The name Henry Carr erupts in the most physically violent scene in Ulysses, as a drunken and abusive British soldier sparring for a fight at the brothel. Just as Dante placed his enemies in Hell, Joyce turned a suave British diplomat he worked with in Zurich during the War into someone who was the dark side of British power, a foul-mouthed figure of suppression in Edwardian Dublin. The Henry Carr in Travesties reminisces on his time in the British Consulate. “I knew him well,” Carr repeats of each person he has met, echoing Hamlet and reminding us that they, but Joyce especially, are now dead. These reminiscences serve as our entry into that society, a city in turmoil due to the effects of war: refugees, spies, misfits, revolutionaries, and (I am afraid to say) artists. These memories are not aided by incipient Alzheimers, which means, for example, Carr is selective about what he recalls, is in denial about old grudges, and cannot remember the name of the character he played in Earnest. When Ronan McDonald at the Bloomsday Seminar puts it that Joyce was politically opposed to England, Carr is someone who springs to mind. Dion Mills plays Carr with vigour and style, bringing to life the hypocritical imperialist who believes his own propaganda, and who would say goodbye to all that for the love of his life, which occasionally appears to be a fashion fetishist’s passion for custom-made jodhpurs.   

Matthew Connell, inventor of Dadaism. Photo by Christa Hill.

Enter his sparring partner, the poetry-shredding poet Tristan Tzara, played with hedonistic goodwill and daring by Matthew Connell. Monacled and sporting a coat of many Dadas, Connell accentuated the fraught contradictions of the anti-artist of the period, wondering if this is revolution, nihilism, or just done for the pleasurable shock of the new. Tzara would have endorsed the stage furniture, decorated with pages from the complete works of Shakespeare, in découpage. His own efforts at snipping a sonnet into new forms eventually wins over the object of his desire, Carr’s younger sister, Gwendolen. Joanna Halliday delivers a subtle performance of convincing types, as she shifts quickly from one social role to another, none of which are precisely what Gwendolen would have chosen herself, if she had had the choice. The Wildean paradox between reality and artifice was played out by Halliday with all the pokerfaced verve it deserves.

Joyceans all let us rejoice for we are jung and easily freudened. Our attention shall always return to the author of Ulysses, played this year with a knowing hauteur by Johnathan Peck. Stoppard’s portrait of the artist as a middle-aged scrounger is the counterpoint to Tzara. Peck projects that mixture of self-confidence, erudition, and worldliness that we know from the biographies. He’s an operator, never at a loss for a limerick. Tzara is the harbinger of conceptual art, someone addicted to the random. Stoppard gives Tzara some fairly stunning verbiage, but it is his Joyce who turns verbiage into form. The Ithaca catechism scene, in which Tzara gives brief answers to Joyce’s grammatically intricate questions, is a case in point. Their altercations descend into abuse, or is that just mutual misunderstanding? Whatever, the overriding comic dialogue left the audience waiting for the next punchline, rather than pondering the niceties of aesthetics.

Carr of the Consulate, in his older persona, played by Dion Mills.

At stake is Joyce’s proposal to Carr, that the Consulate support the production of a play by that most dangerous of Irishmen, Oscar Wilde. Carr is a bit of a G&S man himself, and wary of someone he describes as a ‘Gomorrahist’. But even as the wheels are put in motion for this forthcoming show we become aware that this vehicle is something we have been watching move the whole time. Stoppard’s love of Shakespeare expresses itself again, this time with a play within a play. Likewise the pan-European nature of the play, in which all the characters, with the possible exception of the librarian, are a nationality other than Swiss has an air of Shakespeare about it: we’re all in this locale, but we’re all talking about somewhere else. The very neutrality of the setting, politically speaking, permits all sorts of far-flung and  eccentric forces to converge, thrashing out ideas and feelings without censure. Set design (Jordan Stack) and costume design (Rhiannon Irving) employed the Swiss national colours of red and white as a subtle subtext to the script, Switzerland is a safety zone full of people on hold, just passing through. The music conjured the nostalgia of the period, while the lighting (Alex Blackwell) and sound (Alex Toland) sent regular reports about what was really happening out of sight across the borders and below the alps. 

A Wildean moment: “A gross deception has been practised upon us’. L to R: Gabrielle Sing, Joanna Halliday, Tref Gare.

Zurich being what it was, political as well as artistic revolutions were in the air. The intense, brooding presences of Lenin (Syd Brisbane) and his wife Nadya (Milijana Čančar) set an extra level of tone and complexity to the play. Their own relationship of loving devotion is a sobering contrast to the romantic hi-jinx going on between the other characters. Both actors’ deliberate tenor of seriousness kept the bass line of the performance, taking us to the edge as they live in anticipation of imminent return to a Russia in upheaval. Not for them the absurdist dadaing of Tzara, the petit-bourgeois doodling of Joyce, or the dedicated haberdashery of Carr. Come the revolution there will be some changes made, not least in what you can and cannot call art. The Lenins may say in Russian ‘da, da’ at the prospect of wholesale change, but it’s not quite the change Tzara had in mind. As Steve Carey explained in the Bloomsday Seminar, Lenin is against careerism, while Tzara is against everything.

The Lenins plotting to leave for a revolution in Russia. L to R: Milijana Cancar and Syd Brisbane. Photo by Christa Hill.

The Lenins help explain the fervours of Carr’s manservant Bennett (Tref Gare) and Carr’s love interest, the librarian and freethinker Cecily (Gabrielle Sing). Bennett, in particular, is what some would call a split personality. Behind the starchy exterior and stiff upper lip of the trained valet rumbles the soul of a true believer, ready to join them at the barricades at the first opportunity. Reports from Russia through 1917 are transmitted with sang-froid to his master Carr, while Bennett’s increasing agitation at other times betrays a man in the throes of overthrow, when at all feasible. Comic timing is essential for this part, and Gare had everyone waiting expectantly on his next act, be that perfectly pouring the tea or reciting dialectical materialism at speed. Trying to explain to Bennett that manservants would be the first jobs to go at the revolution seemed not to impinge on his taciturn expression.

A fervent Zimmerwaldist on the Revolution : Gabrielle Sing as Cecily. Photos by Christa Hill.

Cecily too has had her consciousness raised. Assisting Bolshie No. 1 in the library had its effect, though Cecily is always a person with her own mind, which serves her well in most situations. Her duet with Gwendolen is one of the abiding delights of Travesties and their rendition this time around was stageshow perfection. Librarians are the object of a hundred misconceptions and Cecily’s is that she thinks alphabetically. Her education in literature has got as far as G: she knows Gilbert but doesn’t know Sullivan. She reminds us of Joyce’s own obsessions with the letters of the alphabet, ending as they do in their cosmic meanings, their perpetual regeneration in life and art, in Finnegans Wake.
The alphabet is indefatigable and so too is Bloomsday’s Artistic Director Frances Devlin Glass. Once more she has pulled the rabbit out of the hat, ably assisted by Producer Steve Carey and Director Jennifer Sarah Dean. An empty space of vacant picture frames, wonky bookcases and ancient gramophone-players was transformed into a world alive with the ambitions and cross-purposes of some brilliant Europeans. We smile at Henry Carr’s defence that what he likes ‘might be nonsense, but at least it’s clever nonsense,’ knowing that the same could be said of Travesties, yet the play moves sprightly and learned across art, politics, fashion, culture, and history, leaving us with many ideas and no clear answers. Could this play have been written by anyone other than a Middle European? The figure of Lenin is impossible to shake. The figure of Tzara epitomises idealism when it meets absurdism. Joyce epitomises the artist who had to live in Europe to get a focus on his homeland. And the figure of Carr is that amalagam of Englishness, largely agnostic about its own culture but fierce in its defence, that still has an honours system that could award the author of Travesties with a knighthood.

Philip Harvey

Philip is a Joycean who is the Librarian at the Carmelite Library in South Melbourne. He is also a poet and a literary blogger.