Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

Published January 19, 2009

Tom Stoppard and André Previn’s play with orchestra is a clever and witty treatment of a shocking subject matter.

A man is lying on an iron-framed bed in a bare hospital room, covered in a grey blanket. He rises, and, as the sound of a symphony plays around him, he becomes consumed by the music, eyes closed, moving to its melody, as if he is conducting it himself. This is Toby Jones’s Ivanov, an inmate in a Russian psychiatric hospital in the 1970s. He is mad, and the orchestra is in his head. Only it isn’t; it is the Southbank Sinfonia live on stage at the Olivier theatre, and the music it plays becomes the score to the story as well as the symphony in Ivanov’s mind.

Stoppard’s play for actors and orchestra – directed here by Felix Barrett and Tom Morris – is inspired by the true story of Russian political dissidents in the 1970s who, arrested during peaceful demonstrations, were declared insane by the authorities and put in prison-hospitals for long stretches, suffering the horrific abuses of the system.

This is the experience of Joseph Millson’s character Alexander, the gaunt figure who becomes Ivanov’s roommate and has to put up with the latter’s unmelodic triangle-playing, his essential accompaniment to his imaginary orchestra. After spending years in prison for speaking up for his dissident friends, Alexander has finally been transferred to the psychiatric hospital which, he says, means the authorities intend to let him go, as long as he admits his behaviour was insane. He refuses to submit to this sinister system, preferring to go on hunger strike and risk his life, despite pleas from his young son.

This shocking scenario is made even more so by the clever, surreal conceit that Stoppard and composer André Previn have constructed, intertwining the orchestra and the action. Jones is hilarious as Ivanov, dancing around the stage to his own personal soundtrack, and the play is packed with witty one-liners. Yet the humour also serves to highlight the awfulness of Alexander’s plight; a sane man stuck in an insane system which is scarily watertight. In this environment, Ivanov’s delusions seem entirely appropriate, reflecting a Russia which has created its own orchestrated madness, where those who disagree with the conductor must therefore be out of their minds. It would be laughable if it were not so sickening.

Of the other characters, Dan Stevens is the young doctor who must obey the authorities and pleads with Alexander to do the same, to secure his freedom. The doctor is a pawn in this topsy-turvy system, prescribing laxatives for schizophrenia and rushing off to play in his real orchestra, which seems oddly similar to the one in his patient’s head. Bryony Hannah is heartbreaking as Alexander’s son Sacha, who only wants his dad home, while Bronagh Gallagher is the voice of the outside, Sacha’s teacher who believes that Russia has moved on from the bad old days of Stalin’s rule and would never put sane people in a hospital for the insane.

At just over an hour’s running time and requiring the expense of a full symphony orchestra, it is no wonder that at a press conference last week, National Theatre Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner said Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is one of those projects that on paper seems “barking mad” for the NT to do. In actuality, it seems entirely sane.

CB