Every Good Boy Deserves Favour
Tom Stoppard, André Previn
Dir: Felix Barrett and Tom Morris
National Theatre January-Feb 2010
This may have been cold-war commie-bashing but it was superior cold-war commie-bashing.
I have previously sat through Tom Stoppard’s all-day trilogy The Coast Of Utopia in abject misery as boredom made me want to chew off my own limbs. Possessing tenacity and fortitude, and hoping against hope that some sort of political illumination or dramatic denoument would take place over the course of HOURS and HOURS of this drek, I stayed put. It didn’t. But I do remember someone done up like a large marmalade cat wandering through the Marx-Bakunin drinking and fighting marathon, presumably to ensure the audience (and cast) was awake. Or perhaps we did nod off and dreamt it. Collectively, of course.
I have endured Rock ‘n’ Roll (about Syd Barrett and communist oppression in Czechoslovakia) which, while feted by critics, disappointed me with its stagey dialogue and puppy Marxism, improved only a little by the addition of the historian Eric Hobsbawm as consultant and the presence of Brian Cox.
Yes, I have done all this and wondered what anyone saw in Stoppard except his usefulness in his role as one of our most prominent cultural cold war warriors.
Every Good Boy Deserves Favour tells us what (actually, as does Rosenkrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead). This 65 minute piece is the playwright at his absolute best. The dialogue sparkles and fizzes with some uproarious laugh-out-loud moments and clever-clever lines as well as intelligent ones. (And, yes, I can tell the difference.) He can flip from axioms of Euclid to some wonderfully bad puns about harps being “plucky” and throwing a trombone to the dog, and all within an informed argument on the brutality of the Soviet state towards dissenters.
Written in 1977, long before Guantanamo, creeping acceptance of torture closer to home and assassination, and the growing awareness that any state will do whatever it needs in order to counter meaningful dissent (whether that state be the old Soviet Union, China, the US or Britain), the play scathingly critiques the Soviet mental asylum system where political opponents were sent until they shut up or died.
Alexander Ivanov (Adrian Schiller) is an internationally renowned intellectual (based on Vladimir Bukovsky) whose complaint that the state locks sane people in asylums, lands him in one himself. He shares his cell, sorry, “ward”, with another Ivanov (Julian Bleach utterly believable as a lunatic) who really is demented and believes he has an orchestra. In a wonderful theatrical device, the play requires a full orchestra on stage (the Southbank Sinfonia), seen only by Ivanov and us, making us part of his madness. It’s also a master metaphor for how we function as members of an orchestra when we take our place in society.
The music, written by André Previn, references the great Russian composers and is so good that I later looked everywhere for a recording. Sadly, it appears that there isn’t one.
Alexander goes on hunger strike and begins to reek of acetone as his body eats itself, much like Soviet Russia is doing. During one visit from his son, Sacha, (Shea Davis or Wesley Nelson on different nights) Alex tells him, “A girl removing her nail-varnish smells of starvation.” “Russia is a civilised country,” he says, “very good at Swan Lake and space technology, and it is confusing if people starve themselves to death.” Bobby Sands, who died of his hunger strike four years later under Thatcher, might have agreed.
In one of many musical jokes, the violinist doctor (Jonathan Aris), who really does have an orchestra, uses emotional blackmail concerning Alexander’s son to get him to retract his accusations and abandon his refusal to eat, plucking the strings EGBDF as he tells him, “He’s a good boy. He deserves a father”.
The fifty musicians conceal several dancers who emerge at the climax when culture descends into chaos. The soldiers among them beat up the musicians and smash their instruments: the nail that sticks up has to be hammered down.
The play is resolved by a cheeky and most effective solution which has been perfectly set-up and which I can’t possibly reveal. You’ll have to catch it next time around. Which may be a long time as it is apparently pretty damned expensive to produce. Shame.
If you read this play as an indictment of authoritarianism everywhere then you will enjoy.