A SURREAL SPRITZER
Zurich a century ago: the still centre of a wheel of war, neutral refuge of “spies, exiles, refugees, artists , writers , revolutionaries and radicals” . James Joyce was there writing Ulysses; Tristan Tzara was pioneering the redefinition of Art in Dada events in a nightclub, breaking things and cutting up sonnets and having Concerts of Noise. The exiled Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was beavering in the library on his book on imperialism. And there too – mentioned in Ulysses – was the insignificant figure of one Henry Carr, invalided from the trenches with a leg wound, under protection of the British Consulate. So Joyce – grumpily, we are told – did actually direct Carr in an am-dram performance of The Importance of Being Earnest.
Well! What richer soup of personalities could be offered to the acrobatic mental, verbal and parodic skills of a younger Tom Stoppard? He revives it now, with director Patrick Marber making absolutely the best of its vaudevillian surrealism (I am happy to say there is a stuffed beaver at the edge of the stage, wholly and correctly unexplained) . And the author muses that actually the dates don’t quite fit, and he couldn’t face much research, so the answer was “to filter the story through the recollections of a fantasising amnesiac”.
The result is a glorious intellectual spritzer, with Carr at its centre in a magnificent, defining, wittily commanding and endearing performance from Tom Hollander ( fresh from acting Tom Hiddleston off the screen in The Night Manager). As Carr in senility he frames the tale, a stooping querulous old mole in a ratty brown dressing gown and long-dead straw boater: in between times he and the hat reclaim their youth and the Zurich days. As old men and dreams will, he reinterprets memory, so that all the characters drift in and out of the war and of Wilde’s world together: Lenin, Joyce, Tzara, the play’s Gwendolyn and Cecily, Lenin’s Nadya and a bolshevik butler (a saturnine Tim Wallers) who maybe was actually the consul that Carr in reminiscence thinks he was…
Treasure the moments: James Joyce suddenly Lady Bracknell, Clare Foster’s prim Leninist Cecily doing a bump-and-grind with a volume of dialectic over her crotch,; sudden brief musical numbers decaying into nonsense as dreams do. There’s Hollander’s yearning riff about a magnificent series of Savile Row trousers he ruined in the trenches; his clipped gentlemanly confusion about the new age (“A socialist revolution ? You mean unaccompanied women smoking at the opera?”). Cherish Freddie Fox’s spiritedly arrogant Tzara, decomposing Sonnet 18 in Joyce’s hat to woo Gwendolyn, or the Irishman’s first appearance talking entirely in limericks and the two girls’ Wildean row in rhyme. Pause for a curious, sharp solemn moment as Lenin and Nadya board the secret train which (it really did) smuggles them to Russia to join the revolution.
This is Stoppard the entertainer, constructor of glittering yet oddly logical follies, silly and serious at once, roaming in the half- imagined chaos that made modern Europe. It’s a joyful stew of word and thought games, determined frivolity,white-hot belief and terrible limericks. But it is also studded with great arguments: angry Marxist fervour oddly topical now in the age of Corbyn and Momentum, and – inextricable from it – the argument about art: whether it is or should be useful, its endurance and the importance of beauty to the human soul. Art is championed by Carr and by Joyce, and debunked sometimes by Lenin’s words (real ones) about its only use being social critique, and sometimes by Tzara the dada-iste averring that the age of genius is past and “now we need vandals”. See? Topical again, in the age of Serota, Saatchi,Emin, Hirst, the Turner Prize.
And a lovely hard hit , at a time when affluent artists have bewailed the Brexit vote and excoriated those who did it, is Carr’s lucid observation that it’s like having a chit from matron to avoid real work : “To be an artist at all is like living in Switzerland during a world war”. Ouch! It takes a deft playwright to kick himself in the crotch. Gotta love it.
box office 020 7378 1713 to 19 Nov