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Photograph by Tristram Kenton

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

The National Theatre presents EVERY GOOD BOY DESERVES FAVOUR, a play for actors and orchestra by Tom Stoppard and Andre Previn in the Olivier auditorium.

In the program notes Tom Stoppard writes: “Andre Previn and I met in 1974 while he was principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. One day not long afterwards he said that if ever I wanted to write something which needed a symphony orchestra, well, he had one. We agreed early on that we should try to go beyond a mere recitation for the concert platform, and also that we were not writing a piece for singers. In short, it was going to be a real play, to be performed in conjunction with, and bound up with, a symphony orchestra.” From such like meetings and conversations between talented people, strange and wonderful work sometimes come. Mad fantasies become flesh.

And although Mr Stoppard confesses his “qualifications for writing about an orchestra amounted to a spell as a triangle-player in a kindergarten percussion band” he brooded and then took up the challenge. Many a creative dead end proposed itself. Then in “April 1976 I met Victor Fainberg. For some months previously I had been reading books and articles about the Russian dissidents, intending to use the material for a television play, and so I knew that Mr Fainberg had been one of a group of people arrested in Red Square in August 1968 during a peaceful demonstration against the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. He had been pronounced insane and in 1974 he had emerged into exile from five years in the Soviet prison-hospital system…… His main concern when I met him was to secure the release of Vladimir Bukovsky, himself a victim of abuse of psychiatry in the USSR, whose revelations about that abuse had got him sentenced to consecutive terms of prison, labour camp and internal exile amounting to twelve years. Mr Fainberg was not a man to be broken or silenced; an insistent, discordant note, one might say, in an orchestrated society. I told Andre that (I had found a) triangle player who thought he had an orchestra (and) was now sharing a cell with a political prisoner. I had something to write about, and in a few weeks the play was finished.” The character, Alexander became the prisoner, Ivanov his triangle playing cellmate. In 1977 the play was performed.

The project was a first in a number of areas: It was the first time the London Symphony Orchestra had participated in such a production; it was the first time Stoppard ever wrote for an orchestra; it was the first time Trevor Nunn directed a Stoppard play and it was the first major attempt on the British stage to tackle the issue of Soviet dissidents. The combined strength of the RSC, who produced it with five of their leading actors – Ian McKellen, John Wood, Patrick Stewart, Philip Locke and Barbara Leigh-Hunt – and the London Symphony Orchestra made it a significant event. The one-off performance on the giant stage of the Royal Festival Hall with an audience of some 6,000 people provided a scale for the work unlike anything the playwright
had previously done. But the music, with its echoes of Prokofiev and Schoenberg, the acting,with outstanding performances from Ian McKellen and John Wood, and the text, which managed to integrate the angst of the prisoners with the power of the orchestra, made it an outstanding success.

This production of the play for the National Theatre was mounted in January 2009 and returned for another season January 2010. The orchestra, (some 40 musicians,) is the SOUTHBANK SINFONIA conducted by Simon Oliver.

The huge Olivier stage is stripped back to the bare walls with minimal set masking and stylised doors and frames, with a white track from the entrance of the prison-hospital to the cell of the protagonists meandering through the seated orchestra with its chairs, music stands and lights.(Set Design,Bob Crowley) The doctors, soldiers, prisoners navigate their way through this gathering to reach the cell of the triangle playing prisoner, Ivanov (Julian Bleach) and the new patient, Alexander (Adrian Schiller).

“EVERY GOOD BOY DESERVES FAVOUR” explores the questionable divisions between patients and physicians…. (Who is ‘crazy’?) ….The Colonel (Peter Pacey) also a doctor who is in charge of the case, is not trained in ‘psychiatry as SUCH’. Alexander asks, “What is his speciality?” “Semantics. He’s a doctor of philology, whatever that means,” the doctor answers. “In the world of the play, logic has disappeared in favour of a bureaucracy which tries desperately to release the inmates if only they would admit that they are insane. Or that they have been cured.”

This “semantic” speciality gives Mr Stoppard the opportunity to display his usual, entertaining semantic games of wit. The political focus of the text does not blunt this dexterity: Ivanov tells Alexander “I’ve had clarinet players eating at my own table. I’ve had french whores, and gigolos speak to me in the public street, I mean horns, I mean piccolos, so don’t worry about me maestro, I’ve sat down with them, drummers even, sharing a plate of tagliatelle Verdi and stuffed Puccini.” Again: Late in the play, a doctor tells Alexander, in response to his claim that he has “no symptoms, he has opinions”, that, “Your opinions are your symptoms. Your disease is dissent.”

As with the history of the first performance, that I reported above, the production, here, in the Olivier Theatre, is in effect equally “significant”. The text is still scintillating, the score accumulatively powerful, wonderfully played under the guidance of Simon Over, the acting is generally good. However, the surprise of the Ensemble/dancers, hidden as players in the orchestra, in a brilliantly choreographed ‘politcal’ narrative dance (Choreographer, Maxine Doyle) erupting out of the orchestra players, along with Lighting (Bruno Poet) that is startling in its affect and beauty, along with a very atmospheric and insidious Sound Design (Christopher Shutt) underneath the score and accompanying the psychological ratcheting up of the tensions of the play, all adds up to a deeply moving theatrical event. The experience of the play is very elevating and magisterial. Directed by Felix Barrett and Tom Morris.

The final moments of the play as Alexander and Ivanov are released and the orchestra players, like ghosts, begin disappearing into the ephemera, now that the released Ivanov no longer needs them, with a seamless full orchestra recording of the main themes of the Previn score now substituting for the ‘deranged reality’ of our triangle player, in the auditorium, is striking. I felt, my companion felt, that in this sixty five minute production of the play, as if we had had an epic, life affirming experience. Once again the depth of the reason to perform this play today in 2010, the conceptual vision and the quality of the intricacies of all the artists involved make an impression that reveals and restores the reasons for why the theatre, when in the right hands, is a relevant and powerful tool for social comment and maybe, indirectly or directly, cause change.

It is terrible to report the still startling political relevance of this 32 year old text. It is humbling and distressing. “The teacher (Pandora Colin) in the play talks of “the bad old days” of show trials and executions in the Stalin era. By 1991,when the Soviet Union was dissolved, she would have known enough about her own period to say with some meaning that these too were “the bad old days”. But for the 21st century, the bad old days are NOW. Since 1992 political assassinations in Russia has become almost commonplace. About fifty journalists have been murdered. In February 2009, THE TIMES reported, “Roman Nikolaichik, a parliamentary candidate for The Other Russia [party]…. was sent to a psychiatric hospital after police questioned him about his political activities.”

This play written in 1977, to, perhaps, record Victor Fainberg’s campaign to agitate for the release of Vladimir Bukovsky from the Soviet authorities, (which succeeded in 1976), has a powerful contemporary resonance of some edge. For in the program notes for this production there is an interview with an aged Vladimir Bukovsky who now living in the UK is still a political activist for his fellow citizens in contemporary Russia. “In May 2007, Bukovsky agreed to be a candidate in the Russian presidential election. More than 800 participants nominated Bukovsky for president in December 2007. The Election Committee turned down his application, claiming he failed to give information on his activity as a writer when submitting documents, that he was holding a British residence permit, and that he had not lived on Russian territory over the past ten years.”

“I am now old and sick and not in good shape to continue, but we have to put this system on trial. We need condemnation of the system -opening of its crimes. All the secret crimes must be made public on television.We have to Condemn the system. And then remove the most obnoxious functionaries from positions of power.”- Vladimir Bukovsky.

This present day history, enveloping this well timed revival of political relevancy in the National Theatre repertoire is indeed still, sadly, significant.

For me, here at home in Sydney, it is the breadth of the philosophical reasoning for the need of production of texts there in London that make a real difference to the power of the choices and the influence to relevance of the theatre on its community. Much to learn from. Much to speculate upon….. Something to emulate? Huh? MMMMMmmmmmm?

NB Quotes are from the National theatre program and from “DOUBLE ACT. A life of Tom Stoppard” – Ira Nadel (2002, Methuen).

3 replies to “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour”

  1. Just a general comment, I want to say how much I appreciate and enjoy Mr Jackson's enlightening reviews. I am so glad to have discovered them
    Jo Turner

  2. Must agree! Dont always agree with what we both see back in home in Sydney but I must commend your exceptional reviewing skills

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