I have an inherent discomfort with theatre that requires a certain knowledge or level of intelligence in order to appreciate it (reference my ongoing debate with the current Royal Court policy). It's innately smug and feels dismissive of opinion or question from those 'not in the know' which, in my mind, succeeds only in making theatre itself seem unnecessarily (more) exclusive.
The 'fourth wall' isn't just broken here, it's bulldozed, crashed down and then constantly rebuilt in a different guise
So what to expect from Stoppard's 1974 play Travesties - a polemic on the importance of language, politics and art that plays out in imagined scenes involving Lenin, James Joyce and Dada founder, Tristan Tzara? Surprisingly, due to Patrick Marber's lightning pace direction and the cast's delivery that dances with musicality, you get an unusual, energetic and very funny masterclass display of verbal dexterity that is (on the whole) more vibrant than verbose.
Much - but not all - of this is down to Tom Hollander's firework of a performance as protagonist Henry Carr, regaling us with confused memories of his time as British Consulate in Zurich circa 1917. Hollander punctuates every syllable he speaks, delivers every laugh on point and changes pace with the slightest pause - demonstrating both addled confusion as an elderly man today ("I can be contradicted on all points except my height") and a desperate need for attention as his younger self. As he takes us back and forth, repeats, rewinds and replays his memories, the often confusing, far from linear, plot is steered with a control that is as powerful in a silent beat as it is in a fantastical monologue.
The 'fourth wall' isn't just broken here, it's bulldozed, crashed down and then constantly rebuilt in a different guise. Carr's reinventing of history is not simply a 'play within a play', but a musical / burlesque / naturalistic / kafkaesque / dreamlike cornucopia of styles. The set is covered with pages of script, sleeveless books and shelves that hint at being filled with works of genius - visually echoing the importance held by every word around us, changing dramatically in meaning as context or delivery shift. Once or twice a word was dropped in this performance but stood out more for having been, as though a precious jewel had just been smashed - such is the strength and understanding that each actor generally brings to their script.
From Clare Foster and Amy Morgan as objects of affection Cecile and Gwendolen going through a gamut of emotion in what (without truly listening) sounds like a delightful Gilbert & Sullivan tune (G&S are referenced often as the true masters of British theatre by the young, naive and shallow Carr) - to Freddie Fox's gorgeously extravagant, camp and flamboyant Tzara (perhaps with more over gesticulation than truly necessary but the sex he oozes onstage helps you forgive him), words become acrobats that jump from the mouths of their masters and sing (both metaphorically and literally) before you.
The play elevates Carr's role in developing Joyce's talent (the former playing in the latter's production of The Importance of Being Earnest - "not as Earnest but...the other one") whilst Joyce was writing Ulysses (working title 'Elasticated Bloomers') as well as his attempt to thwart Lenin's return to Russia and his challenges - and therefore steering - of the birth of Dadaism (ergo his input into the creation of surrealism). But it's really not imperative to know the reality or to try and understand the references being pulled on. What Marber does here is demonstrate Stoppard's general musings over the value, worth and definition of art by playing with those very notions in its styling rather than its story.
Depending how you approach the play - and what knowledge you bring with you - will impact whether you will see this as being shallow or deep; neither being better than the other as it's truly both. The real games here are with the words - at times, there are more games and puzzles to quite keep up with but you really don't need to bother. My advice would be to not over-examine or over-intellectualise as you will then miss something coming right around the corner that's worth your attention more - a childish running joke on Joyce's surname ("is it Phyllis? Rita? Or James Deirdre?")...or Lenin wearing what looks like a lady's wig whilst continuing to stage whisper "I'm wearing a wig"...or a question as to whether the phrase 'social revolution' is referring to "unaccompanied women smoking at the opera". The contrast of silliness, politics and aesthete shouldn't work - but create a much better whole for being the parts.
It's as though Stoppard was cheekily stealing reviewers' potential headlines (or possibly helping them if they were struggling) when he gave the line to Tzara that "It may be nonsense but at least it's clever nonsense." It may be his definition of Dada but one wonders if this line became the hook by which the rest of the play revolved - and that hung up in the rehearsal room. For this is an experience that cries out for the oxymoronic definition - 'lowbrow literati', 'deeply shallow', 'frenetically controlled'. None of which are as truly fitting as the line Stoppard himself wrote.
In all honesty, I do wonder if this may struggle to find a long term home in the West End - the synopsis on paper doesn't do it real justice, the tourists may be bewildered by such mastery of the language and our human need to understand leads us to focus on what we don't 'get' as opposed to what we do. But that would be a shame. Whilst you do need to sit up and take notice of each word being teased on stage, allow yourself to go on the whole journey and ignore the slight bumps on the road that you may experience. This is acting at its finest, delivering comedy that just makes you laugh out loud. And it's unexpected to be able to say that after spending a night in wartime Zurich.