What Did You Do In The War, Dada?

From the Easter Rising in Dublin to Lenin and Joyce in Zurich, revolution is a gift to the dramatist

Theatre
Mad, not so bad: Tom Hollander as Henry Carr in “Travesties” (©Johan Persson)

Growing up the Catholic north-east of England, where dramatic tastes remained rooted in Ireland long after memories of life across the water had turned to Friday night folklore, I reached saturation with the work of Sean O’Casey by school-leaving age. Barely a year went by without a run of Juno and the Paycock at Consett Technical College. A few decades on, it’s hard to recall the grip that O’Casey’s work had on English imaginings of a pre-1918 Dublin.

The Plough and the Stars, the most emotionally charged of his Dublin Trilogy, feels like a period piece a hundred years after the Easter Rising. At the National’s Lyttelton, Vicki Mortimer’s cavernous design of a decaying tenement looks like an Irish Broadway production from the 1970s — Hopper-esque scenes, etched out in melancholy shades of sludge and dim street-lighting. Querulous, if preternaturally lucid, Dubliners eke out life on the precipice of revolution.  When Jack Clitheroe (Fionn Walton) chooses the cause of militant Irish nationalism against the imprecations of his anxious wife Rosie (Judith Roddy), the tone is set for a tragedy, relieved by O’Casey’s mordant lines. “You’d have felt the loss of him less sharply if you’d been married for longer,” is the back-handed consolation doled out to a grieving widow. It reminds us that besides being the purveyor of shouty arguments, long adjectival sentences and intense dissections of the eddies of Irish history, O’Casey was really a member of the no-nonsense party: “I’m Irishman enough not to lose my head wi’ folly and foreigners,” is the tart rejoinder to the earnest Marxist, Young Covey, a dead ringer for the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell in his surly self-righteousness.

Nothing ages so fast as tenement melodrama, however, and directors Jeremy Herrin and Howard Davies have accepted the slightly creaky period feeling of the play. If women bear the emotional brunt of O’Casey’s work, the pen portraits of nationalists and socialists strike me as the more slyly convincing. Covey preaches control of the means of production, while being far ruder to the local barfly prostitute than the other characters. He’d be so happy in the Momentum movement today — theoretically fond of mankind, not so loving to the version he encounters on a daily basis. By the same token, the nationalism O’Casey distrusted is denounced in adept parodies of Padraic Pearse’s rabble-rousing speeches. That has its own alarming echoes in a Europe in some ways unrecognisable a century after the First World War — while bearing its scars and echoes. “Where there’s talk of religion, there’s an argument not far behind,” prophesies one of the tenement sages. It’s never a cheerful night round at O’Casey’s, but his understanding of the crooked timber of humanity, caught up in the sweep of events, is undimmed.

History in all its coincidental oddity is given the brilliant linguistic somersault treatment in Tom Stoppard’s Travesties — one the most appealing of his works because it wears such a dazzling amount of learning with a lightness that would have impressed Mary Berry in the dramatic equivalent of the Great British Bake Off

It’s never a great idea to summarise a Stoppard plot, since his gift lies in creating bizarre links that reflect broader truths. Suffice it to say that this is the one in which James Joyce directs an amateur production of The Importance of Being Earnest featuring a dithery British diplomat, Henry Carr, in Zurich in 1917. The difficulties of a fraught production are interrupted by Dadism and the growl of Russian revolution.

Travesties premiered with the RSC with Frank Windsor and John Hurt in 1974. It had an all right-ish revival at the Barbican in the early 1990s, but has long been overdue a more confident outing. Patrick Marber’s treatment at the Menier, which runs until November 19, emphasises the switchback rapidity of Stoppard’s verbal switches and twitches: “What did you do in the war, Dada?”. The box office candy is Tom Hollander, fresh from his role as Corky, the affable henchman in the BBC’s lucrative hit, The Night Manager. Hollander’s skill consists in playing characters on the edge of mental dissolution, whose internal logic nonetheless feels clear to us. As Corky, he was so amiably psychopathic — “I’m going to hang you upside down until the truth falls out of you by gravity” — that we booed when he was dispatched and goody-goody Tom Hiddleston survived the encounter.  

Here, as Carr, he is borderline mad rather than bad, rambling in senescence about the near-glory of his stage youth. The shifting logistical sands of Stoppardism forge a dream world no odder than the real events of 1916-18, from the shabby streets of Dublin to the Finland Station in Petrograd. Forbes Masson as Vladimir Ilyich is a fittingly chilly mixture of ideologist and low politician, flitting between the bourgeois life of Zurich (Lenin despised the city for its capacity for “loafing”) and his ultimate revolutionary destination.

In Travesties, the Menier has the perfect theatre Bake Off mix of Marber, Stoppard and Hollander, with a strong supporting cast. Already a sell-out, it is a dead cert for a West End transfer in 2017, with rumours of a trip to Broadway to follow. If you can’t wait that long to immerse yourself in a world of fantasists, profiteers and dangerous revolutionaries, Catherine Merridale’s excellent new monograph, Lenin on the Train (Allen Lane, £25), details what must be the most disruptive inter-rail excursion ever undertaken — the trip by Lenin at the behest of the German government back to Russia. Possibly, he was just trying to escape being cast in an amateur Oscar Wilde production. History, as Stoppard understands better than any other playwright, is a random old beast.