Travesties Design Statements

Posted on: May 8th, 2018 by Roundabout

Tim Hatley/Costume and Set Design

My starting point as a designer is always to read the play, and in the case of Travesties, which is a complex play, it required careful reading and thought to begin to understand the threads and layers of the writing, and talking closely with the director, Patrick Marber. It seemed to me that our production needed a strong yet simple approach to the design. The shifting of time and location is clear in the writing and did not need physical transitions to interrupt the flow. Our space is both present and memory, library and apartment, and allows for characters to appear and disappear within. The costumes are rooted strongly in the period, and their palette was developed in tandem with the development of the space. Cross references to Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest, were an enjoyable anchor to designing the play.


Set rendering for Travesties


Neil Austin/Lighting Design

Tom Stoppard brilliantly represents the failing memory of Henry Carr through Dadaist jumps and repetitions in the text of his play, Travesties. And so, the lighting is designed to help the audience follow the narrative through these fractured reminiscences by giving them visual clues as to which time period it is and where the location is. The lighting in the more narrative sections of the play, when Carr in his dotage is unreliably recalling his time in Zurich, has a very different visual look to the scenes in the play which are set in the year 1917.  As Carr’s memories misfire and get repeated in ever more confused versions, both lighting and sound mark them with a library bell and a flicker – not only to underscore the time-slip, but to also aid the audience through the confusion happening in Carr’s mind.


Adam Cork/Sound Design and Original Music

On the surface, Travesties seems to be a play about the unreliable reminiscences of a British diplomat named Henry Carr. But my inspiration for the music and sound score is drawn from the way it stages the struggle between the brutal power of meaninglessness (as expounded by the anarchic “Dada” art of Tristan Tzara) on the one hand, and the rich potential of a densely textured multiplicity of meaning (exemplified in the fiction of James Joyce) on the other. Although they differed in their views regarding the value of the fragments left behind, both Tzara and Joyce (like many writers, artists, and composers of the era) were discovering ways in which the shattering effects of war and rapid social change could be expressed in artistic gestures. Tzara’s “Dada” inspires the disruptive ingredient in the musicscape: drums and cymbals puncture the drama like bursting bombs and rapidfire bullets, together with sirens wailing “EMERGENCY!” and “WAR!” Tom Stoppard has brilliantly sculpted the whole, translating the “Dada” technique of photomontage into a dramatic structural principle, so that we move without transition from one time frame, one literary style, one theatrical convention to another in a cut-and-paste succession of dazzling incongruities. This enables us to baldly introduce birdsong when the text suddenly topples into Wildean lyricism, as well as soulful Russian chorales and opera and cabaret songs when the scenes take other abrupt turns. All this is set against the historical backdrop of both the First World War and the Russian Revolution, and the play embraces the extraordinary historical coincidence of Tzara, Joyce, and Lenin all living in Zurich in 1917 in the Swiss afterglow, what’s more, of Einstein’s transformation of physical science with his relativity theory. Space and Time were no longer seen as fixed quantities – they could be distorted by other forces. This inspired my accompaniment for the moments in the play when Carr has little memory slips and reality seems to reset, delivering different versions of the same events. All the sounds, all the words, all the tunes in the world of Travesties are strangely untethered from the familiar: “Even the cheese has got holes in it!”


Cast of Travesties

Polly Bennett/Movement Director

Where choreography is about making from scratch, movement directing is about working with a text that already exists and transferring what is in a script from “page to stage.” Travesties is unlike any other play I have worked on, as my work has been less about finding a physical language that runs through the piece but instead working to enliven specific moments of Stoppard’s text. The movement is subsequently led by Carr’s wayward mind -- the benefit of which is the freedom it gave me to elaborate his confused memories in an expressive way. As a movement director, you can’t do your job with—out the presence of actors, without bodies in a space, so knowing that a finale dance was written, I used the Charleston and swing dance as a way to start rehearsals -- a company that dances together, stays together, after all! Then, as rehearsals continued, the joy, unity, and silliness of dance slid into the work, making comedic moments of physicality part of the fabric of the production. Soon, it made total sense to have Tristan Tzara twirling and spinning as he entered the stage, to have characters popping out from cubbyholes to sing unexpectedly, and Carr’s fantasy of Cecily very easily morphed into a literary themed table dance (of course!). There is also subtler movement work at play in Travesties. I worked with Tom Hollander, who plays Carr, on the specificity of the character’s elderly body: we explored where age manifests in his body and developed techniques to ensure that his deterioration was rooted in truth. I also worked with the actors to engage with each other, their characters, and the theatre space, all so they can keep up with Stoppard’s marathon text for eight shows a week.

Travesties is at the American Airlines Theatre through through June 17, 2018. For tickets and information, please visit our website.

Related Categories:
2017-2018 Season, Travesties

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