The addled – and fictional – recollections of an elderly man were the most appropriate ground upon which to found Tom Stoppard’s 1974 historical comedy Travesties, given that the historical synchronicities upon which it’s based don’t quite marry up.
While it’s true that James Joyce, the founder of Dadaism Tristan Tzara and the pre-revolutionary Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (aka Lenin) all lived in neutral Zurich during the First World War, they had no relationships with one another. Therefore Stoppard drafted real-life British consular official Henry Carr to provide the glue which bound this intriguing moment and place in time together.
Director Richard Baron’s version for Pitlochry Festival Theatre, the latest of a diverse and richly high-quality summer repertory programme, whole-heartedly commits to the magpie-like natural of Stoppard’s play, fusing dramatic gravitas as Alan Steele’s Lenin prepares for his fateful train journey with ruminations on the nature of art as Alex Scott Fairley’s Irish-jigging and earthily honest Joyce squares off against Graham Mackay-Bruce’s bourgeoise dilettante Tzara. The farcical comedy of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, a version of which Joyce and Carr collaborated on and came to legal blows over in Zurich, is also heavily involved.
This latter element adds much of the lightness and comedy to Baron’s production, with Camrie Palmer and Lucie-Mae Sumner providing memorably energetic song-and-dance interventions as the novel’s characters Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew. Yet it’s Mark Elstob’s performance as Carr, fussily playing up his part in history in youth and old age, which resonates most clearly.
As a physical demonstration of the way memory and self-regard might play tricks with the past, Travesties is by its nature a tightrope-balanced assortment of sometimes discordant elements.