Pavilion Theatre, Dublin
Tom Stoppard has often wondered whether he is a serious playwright compromised by his frivolity, or a frivolous playwright redeemed by his seriousness. Either way, his plays require productions capable of plumbing the depth of his ideas while matching the verve of his wit. Productions, in short, like Rough Magic’s, which respects intelligence enough to have fun with it. Here, the company delivers a play that can be both head-spinning and rib-tickling.
Energising the play of ideas with the amperage of farce, Stoppard’s 1974 work is a breathless revue of revolution in art and politics, in which three radical figures of the 20th century – James Joyce (Ronan Leahy) writing Ulysses, Tristan Tzara (Ciaran O’Brien) splicing and spinning the Dada movement together, and Lenin (Peter Daly) preparing the Russian Revolution – collide in neutral Zurich in 1917, “the still centre of the wheel of war”. As recalled by the doddery Henry Carr (Will Irvine), it is an unreliable memory play, distorted by dementia and a lick of wartime horror and fantasy, all of which recast events along the plot of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, the original “trivial play for serious people”.
The risk of Stoppard’s play, which pullulates with references, rhymes and parodies, is that it can simply become exhausting. Its opening sequence swims with dadaist poetry (“Eel ate enormous appletartza”), Joycean word games and an urgent conversation between Mr and Mrs Lenin in Russian. The ideal audience member would be fluent in all languages, but Rough Magic’s recent production history offers its own handy primer, cavorting in rhymes, literary figures and ideas of neutrality, most of which they staged in Earnest. (If Stoppard can be intertextual, why can’t they?)
Similarly, director Lynne Parker (who also designs) finds ways to correspond with Stoppard’s absurdist fillips – cuckoo clocks chime when Carr’s train of thought hits the buffers; Joyce pulls a rabbit out of a hat – while making enough room among the clutter of Carr’s home (and mind) for heady discussion.
A sinuous conversation between O’Brien’s nicely slinky Tzara (who has perfected his monocle catch) and Irvine’s bourgeois sceptic Carr is followed later by a bravura display from Leahy delivering Joyce’s justification of his art through conjuring tricks and the cadences of Lady Bracknell. That these take place on a small, harshly canted stage beneath a disordered clock further evokes an explosion in war, art and responsibility. In other words, the revolution.
Although Peter Daly’s admirably severe Lenin arrives to deplore frivolity in art, the play resists him. Just as Jody O’Neil’s fetching and icily ideological Cecily swerves between stern lecture and a cumbersome vaudeville routine, the play’s sympathies rest firmly with more exuberant artificers. Joyce travestied The Odyssey for Ulysses, just as Stoppard here travesties Earnest. The infectious spirit of this production is in seeing them pick up those pieces to establish new orders, to trace the brave and joyful revolutions.
Runs until June 23rd