A little bit of theatre

It’s been quite the week for theatre and cinema – if going three times counts as ‘quite the week’, which I rather think it does. And that’s not even including watching Crush on DVD because it has Imelda Staunton and Anna Chancellor in it (word to the wise: they’re glorious, but not enough to make up for a rather shaky plot and Andie MacDowell handing in a rather underwhelming performance – but kudos to whoever put the Behind The Scenes section on the DVD that is literally just behind the scenes footage without any voiceover, including watching a man move cones around).

The film I saw at the cinema was La La Land (watching for the second time, and liking even more this time around), but you already know that that’s great. So I thought I’d mention the plays I’ve been to see.

Nineteen Eighty-Four

On Monday I went to see a production of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and managed to walk into a door on the way in (or, rather, the glass surrounds to a door that I couldn’t see). Ouch. I only realised the day before I went that it would be rather a tough watch – and, indeed, it was. At times I had my fingers in my ears and my eyes closed – there were some very realistic depictions of torture. But, ultimately, I was impressed with the production – it should be unsettling, after all – and the staging was very effective. TV screens were all over the stage, along with lots of floor-level strip lighting; the TV screens showed what was on stage, alongside pre-recorded footage of the same actors, and it was disorientating in the right way.

Sometimes I thought that more had been put into the staging that the rest of the production – two things especially: Julia seemed oddly unpleasant, and Winston and Julia fell in love at the first instant of their first encounter. (Does that happen in the book? I’ve read it twice, but clearly misremembered some of it – there was a central aspect to the plot that I thought they’d changed, but the Wikipedia summary corrects me.) There was an exceptionally good performance from the woman who interrogates Winston, though, and I was pretty impressed.

In the current political climate, an added dimension was there. Comparisons between Trump’s presidency and Nineteen Eighty-Four have brought about a huge rise in sales of the book (which is a brilliant novel, incidentally). Seeing the production in front of me, it was slightly reassuring to see the things that Trump doesn’t do (yet), but watching realistic waterboarding in the week that Trump announced he wanted to reintroduce it… well, it hit home how immoral torture is, and that it hasn’t disappeared. Similarly, the doublethink (whereby you will believe contradictory things, or that 2 + 2 = 5, if Big Brother instructs you to) felt so relevant to today and Trump’s constant, pathological lying. A very apt choice of play for 2017. See more about Creation Theatre’s production.


I was in London for a couple of days this week, at a very good Introduction to International Development course, and I thought I should use the opportunity to go to a play. Having not planned ahead, I was scrolling through what was on that night, seeing what still had tickets available, and landed on Travesties by Tom Stoppard.

I thought I’d read it when I was an undergraduate, but apparently not – or, if I did, I forgot every single thing about it. I certainly wrote about reality in Stoppard at some point, but maybe not this play – though it would have been a great one to choose. Travesties is the faulty reminiscences of ex-consular officer Henry Carr, talking about his dealings with Lenin, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara, putting on a production of The Importance of Being Earnest. Only Stoppard would think of that, right? (Although it is based in the very loosest way on fact: all four men were indeed in Zurich at the same time.)

He’s certainly a whizz at crafting an entertaining play out of something that should really only be an intellectual exercise. The production (currently at the Apollo Theatre, with Tom Hollander in the lead role) was frenetic and fun, and there was plenty of laughter in the packed audience. But we often laughed in different sections – as different people clearly ‘got’ different allusions. I know The Importance of Being Earnest inside out, so loved all the many references to lines and scenes from it. Many of Wilde’s scenarios and quips are altered (subtly or otherwise) to fit the various other occupants of the play – it was great fun spotting where they all were. And so I assume that the same was true for Joyce, Lenin, and Tzara. I know a bit about Joyce, an outline of Lenin, and had never heard of Tzara – and it left me wondering: who on earth would understand everything in this play?

It does seem rather ambitious, to expect anybody in the audience to have a thorough working knowledge of all four elements of the play. I’m going to wager that that was also the case in 1974, when the play was first put on. But I suppose that is Stoppard’s talent – to make such a curio intensely entertaining, even while I knew that I must be missing much. (It’s at the Apollo until April, if you want to go and see it.)

And I’m going to the theatre again next week, to see Silver Lining. What better way to ride out 2017 than with books and plays? (And, yes, probably wine and chocolate.)

8 thoughts on “A little bit of theatre

  • February 12, 2017 at 1:54 am

    I would love to hear about the international development course… Merenia x

  • February 12, 2017 at 10:12 am

    I saw the original version of Travesties in London at The Aldwych in 1974. John Wood played Carr (brilliantly), John Hurt played Tzara and Tom Bell was Joyce. I cannot recall the other cast members and after various house moves I no longer have any theatre programmes, something I hoarded for years. The play was wonderfully frenetic. Apparently Henry Carr played Algernon in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest in Zurich at the time of Lenin, Joyce and Tzara being there as well. I would like to have been inside Stoppard’s mind when he wrote the play. Regards Sue H.

  • February 12, 2017 at 10:46 am

    I’ll be going to see Travesties myself in 10 days’ time, can’t resist a play about Tzara (who was Romanian – a friend of mine was planning to write a screenplay about the Dadaists and I helped with some research). Mention that in the same breath as The Importance of Being Earnest, and I’m completely sold! Glad to hear you had a bit of a ‘different’ week of going out.
    Would also like to hear more about your International Development course, as that was the area I was hoping to work in (and studied social anthropology towards doing just that). But well, life got in the way…

  • February 12, 2017 at 1:46 pm

    Would love to see this production of Travesties. I saw the 1993 RSC revival – but can’t really remember it at all – apparently it had Anthony Sher as Carr – I misremembered him as Griff Rhys Jones somehow!

  • February 12, 2017 at 6:57 pm

    What fun – nothing compares to theatre, and the Nineteen Eighty Four sounds ambitious. I don’t know that Julia *is* meant to be a particularly likeable character – and Winston is also flawed – but that’s perhaps the joy of Orwell’s realistic writing. I think I’m a little scared of re-reading the book at the moment – and I have Sinclair Lewis’s It Couldn’t Happen Here on the shelves which is equally intimidating…

  • February 12, 2017 at 8:47 pm

    I saw a production of 1984 last year, and it was extremely unsettling! I have a pretty strong stomach, and I couldn’t watch some of the torture scenes. They used lights and sound to keep the audience off-kilter and upset during that section so that the conclusion actually came as a relief. I don’t know how I’d handle it now, when aspects of the story seem closer to reality.

  • February 14, 2017 at 1:08 am

    Ugh, seeing plays is the best. That is the primary thing I miss about living in New York; seeing plays is the absolute BEST. I am forever mad at myself that I didn’t get tickets to Angels in America for my London trip before they sold out, but it’s fine, I’ll go to the Globe and maybe some other play situation while I’m there and it’ll heal the pain. :p

  • February 14, 2017 at 1:12 am

    We have read a couple of Stoppard plays in my Play Reading class through U3A. We had great fun with them but have not done Travesties. I saw 1984 last year at the Theatre Royal in Hobart but the torture scenes were alluded to. The play you saw sounds more explicit. A very dark tale. Happy wine and chocolate-ing.

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