Tom Stoppard’s Travesties at the Drama Barn

Amy Scott enjoys a revolt at the Drama Barn, despite a few technical hitches along the way

Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, directed this term in the Drama Barn, by Francesca Seeley, presents a hypothetical meeting between James Joyce, Lenin and Tristin Tzara in Zurich, 1917. Events are re-told by the aging Henry Carr, who was immortalised in Ulysses by Joyce after a court case revolving around his involvement in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Carr’s fabrications, real events and Oscar Wilde’s work become intertwined, leading to a fast paced, thought provoking and witty play that, if staged successfully, is sure to provide a great night of theatre.

Seeley’s production took some innovative moves given the restrictions of the venue. Firstly, the audience faced the opposite direction to standard Drama Barn practice, and although I’m sure techies are lovely people, I did find their visible presence behind the action somewhat disconcerting. Presumably, this change was to accommodate the projection screen at the back of the stage, which opened the play with footage of a train being derailed. The programme notes informed us that this represents Old Carr’s erratic memory, however, I suspect this would be slightly lost without the written explanation – it entirely passed me by.

Aside from making me feel inadequate about my theatrical analysis skills, the use of projection caused further problems. Having been too late to bag a prize seat (where you don’t have to lean on a stranger’s knees) I unfortunately chose to sit where the light from the projector half blinded me every time I dared to look upstage. As it was not just used for video sequences but also, somewhat unnecessarily, to project backdrops showing a library or a living room, this remained an issue for a number of the audience for the duration of the play. Another issue was that the blocking of the action masked at least one character from at least one section of the Barn at all times.

The performance began shakily. Although clearly meant to be fast paced, the snappy dialogue often seemed rushed and gabbled, leading to many of the funniest lines not getting due presentation. One scene was performed in verse and the timing and speed were woefully off the mark, perhaps due to first night jitters, leaving the meaning disjointed and this audience member baffled. However, the performances were engaging and, when speaking clearly, funny. The highlight of the first half came from the interplay between Joyce and Tzara, played by Joseph A. O’Leary and Alexander Hargreaves respectively, who managed to reign in the timing to give a sparky and memorable end to a mixed first half.

Having returned from my interval trip to Vanbrugh bar, the white wine and my cunning switch of seats had set me in a much better mood. The second half gives more stage time to characters who earlier were more peripheral. Duncan Grieve and Kate Lovell played, respectively, Lenin and his wife and skilfully handled emotive material and, most impressively, scenes spoken entirely in Russian. But the real highlight of the second half came in the form of Rebekah Brazier’s Cecily. Although not bad, the performance up until this point had been missing something and, as it turns out, this something was Brazier. Her performance was sharp, funny and well judged, raising the game of the others on stage and improving the production as a whole. The second attempt at a scene spoken in verse was much improved and Cecily’s striptease on the library counter is sure to go down as one of the most memorable moments in the Drama Barn this term.

Overall, despite some irritations regarding staging, Travesties was entertaining and funny, showcasing the theatrical talent at York in a very positive light.

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