Monday 22 November 2010

Every good boy deserves favour

This post was originally written on 14th February, 2010.

As many of you know, I am currently on a blog break. However, after seeing the National Theatre’s revival (actually, the return of the revival) of Every Good Boy Deserves Favour,1 I felt compelled to break my break just this one time. The work, which is subtitled A Play for Actors and Orchestra, was written by Tom Stoppard (whose Arcadia we saw and enjoyed) with a musical score by André Previn in 1977. Although it comes in only a little over an hour, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is an ingenious work, which receives an equally ingenious staging in this production. I have never seen anything quite like it before: intellectual, audacious, and surprisingly moving.

The play focuses on two main characters, both named Alexander Ivanov, who share a cell in a Soviet mental hospital. The first of the characters, often referred to as Alexander (wonderfully and crazily played by Adrian Schiller), is a lunatic who imagines that he is conducting an orchestra. The other inmate, Ivanov (superbly and heartbreakingly played by Julian Bleach), is a political dissident who has been put in the hospital for writing letters that suggest that sane people (other dissidents) have been institutionalised. Ivanov finds himself in a kind of Catch-22 situation: the authorities are only willing to let him go if he admits that he was insane and has been treated successfully. However, he is unwilling to compromise his ideals and thus must remain in the asylum. His fate will ultimately be decided by a comical doctor and a Colonel, who although runs a mental institution, is an expert in philology. Stoppard’s writing beautifully and hilariously brings out the absurdity and sadness of the situation.

One of the most enthralling parts of the play is the inclusion of a full orchestra (played by the musicians of the South Bank Sinfonia) on stage with the actors. (In the original play, the orchestra is just one character.) This allows them to become part of the action. For example, as Alexander conducts imaginary musicians we can see and hear what is in his mind. The orchestra also becomes part of the political situation. In one terrifically choreographed scene, some musicians turn into secret police and hood and torture other members of the ensemble. Finally, their being on stage reminds the viewers that the characters are living in a highly orchestrated society. Appropriately, Ivanov, the one person unwilling to live within this kind of society, is constantly asked if he plays a musical instrument. His answer is consistently and clearly “No” each time.2, 3

Although the play is about a specific moment in Russian history, it could easily have been about any repressive regime. (Certainly, one such regime kept coming to mind as I watched. Also see this.) And although Stoppard’s work tends to be somewhat cerebral, I was still moved. I reacted especially strongly during one scene when Ivanov, confronted by his son about why he won’t compromise and come home, asks his son to imagine how his surrender may encourage the authorities to continue to oppress other fathers. Later, Ivanov dictates a letter to his son in rhyming verse, urging the boy to remember that despite the regime’s lies, ‘To thine own self be true / One and one is always two’.4

1 “Every Good Boy Deserves Favour” is also a mnemonic for the lines of the treble clef.
2 The orchestra in the play reminded me of these lines from Walt Whitman’s poem ‘To Think of Time’ in his Leaves of Grass: ‘The preparations have every one been justified, / The orchestra have sufficiently tuned their instruments, the baton has given the signal.’ Also:
3 In his lecture "The Future of Our Educational Institutions", Nietzsche 'imagines the 'pseudo-culture of the present' as an orchestra full of 'mechanical, lifeless body' (Royle, 2003:63).
4 Of course, 'to thine own self be true' is from Shakespeare's Hamlet (Act 1. Sc. III)

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