First published in The Times, Tuesday July 10 2018
At first glance, there appears to be a bulky, Oscar Wilde-shaped hole in Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s summer season programme. Lively, intelligent productions of the great aesthete’s masterpieces, from An Ideal Husband to The Importance of Being Earnest, all directed by Richard Baron, have been among the rural theatre’s more memorable outings in recent years.
Wilde’s celebrated comedies of manners may be absent from this year’s line-up, but the playwright’s spirit looms large in Baron’s assured production of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties. First performed in 1974, the “trivial comedy for serious people” has as one of its many component parts an amateur staging of Earnest directed by James Joyce while in exile in Zurich in 1917, and the action is scattered with allusions to that cornerstone of the comic repertoire.
Pic: Douglas McBride
As in Wilde’s play, a key plot point turns on a wilful misunderstanding over a character’s name. The manuscripts of two important 20th century literary works go missing in a manner reminiscent of Miss Prism’s racy three-volume novel in Earnest. Stoppard’s script, meanwhile, is rich in epithets so precise in their pastiche of Wildean bon mots that you may find yourself pondering over which are original to Stoppard and which Wilde himself in fact coined.
Baron brings the required sense of barely controlled anarchy to Stoppard’s meticulous scheme. An elegant, multipurpose set, designed by Adrian Rees, forms the shape-shifting backdrop to a consummate eight-strong cast, led by Mark Elstob. The Pitlochry regular is every inch Stoppard’s Henry Carr, the everyman British diplomat who happens to be present in Zurich when revolutionary art in the form of Joyce (Alex Scott Fairley) and Tristan Tzara (Graham Mackay-Bruce), the founder of Dadaism, collides with revolutionary politics in the person of Lenin (Alan Steele). Elstob switches apparently effortlessly between the main action and an elderly version of his character, whose grasp of what really happened in 1917 is fragmented at best.
Pic: Douglas McBride
Just as Stoppard’s play overflows with literary allusions and ideas about the purpose of art, so the staging abounds with elaborate theatricality. Joyce recites an entire scene in limerick. There are snatches of Russian and one scene is conducted in the form of a lecture. Gwendolen (Camrie Palmer) and Cecily (Lucie-Mae Sumner) conduct their hilariously strained tea party to the strains of music hall piano thumping. The infuriatingly clever concoction is arguably the very definition of theatrical Marmite, but, whether in whole or in part, Baron and his cast succeeding in making light and entertaining work of Stoppard’s maddening mix.