The medium is the message. Yet in “Travesty," by award winning comedian Liam Williams, we find a message in search of medium and not really finding it. Relying on a single, central conceit that doesn’t really deliver, "Travesty" purports to examine gender, relationships, and class, in a production that doesn’t interrogate binaries so much as emphasise and reinforce them. One whose heartfelt efforts to be woke risks putting everyone else to sleep.
In "Travesty" we get to hang out with Ben and Anna from the early, post-coital stages of their relationship through to its life changing, decisive moment. Throughout, Ben and Anna’s self-obsessed discussions ensure that if you knew they were going to be at a party you’d deliberately stay at home. Ben’s a lower middle class lad with a country accent. Anna’s an upper middle class, south Dublin snob, so obviously woke she knows it. Over what sound like a series of cut-rate, couples counselling sessions minus the counsellor, we learn little and come to care less as their daily banalities give way to lectures of woke rhetoric, all served up as slices of lemon tart.
In Williams’ exposé of his views on sexual politics, politics run rampant while sex is thin on the ground. Both spoken of with the same level of rigour as a first year college student passing off their last gender lecture as their own independent thinking. Visually, the swapping of gender roles proves gimmicky and its effect short lived, yielding too few real revelations. In the end it all resembles watching a Tom Boy and her effeminate best friend, in less than stellar drag, reinforcing stereotypes and woke cliches resulting in a serious opportunity missed.
As with Eden, director Jed Murray again shows himself something of a master of the two hander. Crafting moments of intimacy where few exist, and keeping everything visually fluid by way of a superb physicality, particularly Ben, Murray makes the experience extremely watchable. Yet the simplistic play on the gender swapped roles begs the question of what might have been had this been pushed and played with more. A hugely impressive Siobhán Callaghan as the predictable Ben, lends the tedious stereotype a real richness and resonance. Not so Fionntán Larney with the thankless task of Anna, though Larney can’t be held entirely responsible for that. With Anna showing all the sniping, judgemental superiority of an empathically flatlined contract lawyer, defining the egocentric woke terms of their relationship with boring, ledger-like finality, it’s left to Callaghan to carry the emotional and human heft, which she does splendidly. Making life even harder for Larney. For Anna is far less a character to care for so much as a policy position in an argument, and not a particularly well made argument at that. Once again, the chalk and cheese binary is reinforced, resulting in a serious lack of chemistry on stage, despite both actors best efforts, making it difficult to care for their relationship. If Callaghan comes miraculously close to making you care, it’s impossible to resurrect what was never really alive in the first place. All that remains is rhetoric. And if you argue that was Williams' point in the first place: it's a point sloppily and unconvincingly made.
Premiering at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016, "Travesty" might well be Williams' debut play, but he's no stranger to the stage. As the past few years have shown, shows exploring gender and its power dynamics are very much part of the zeitgeist. Which means you really have to have something to say, and be able to say it well, to stand your ground in an already crowded arena showing some excellent exponents. Once you get past its central conceit, which you do extremely quickly, "Travesty" leaves little to hang your hat on. Brave and ambitious, with some genuine comic moments, "Travesty" might try hard but it doesn't quite get there.
"Travesty" by Liam Williams, presented by The Corp Ensemble in association with The New Theatre, runs at The New Theatre until July 20
For more information, visit The New Theatre.