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Stoppard and Previn conjure up total theatre

A vivid revival of a 1977 collaboration between Tom Stoppard and André Previn is a short but intense burst of theatrical excitement. Penny Cole reviews Every Good Boy Deserves Favour.4 star

This collaboration between Tom Stoppard and André Previn was inspired by the real life experiences of Soviet dissident Victor Fainberg, who criticised the use of psychiatry as a tool of repression and was then himself locked up as a madman.

Alexander (Joseph Millson) is a quietly determined figure, worn down by hunger strikes and the agony of separation from his son Sasha (Bryony Hannah). The authorities say he is suffering from “a pathological development of the personality” – his personality has taken a wrong turn.

As the doctor (Dan Stevens) tells him, “your opinions are your symptoms”. He is out of tune with an orchestrated society where only one score can be played.

By contrast Alexander’s florid roommate Ivanov (Toby Jones) really is mad, with a full orchestra playing continuously in his head. Wildly conducting a lively Stravinsky-esque tune, this incredibly physical actor critiques his imaginary players, tinging furiously on his triangle.

He denounces the tuba player as a tubercular son of John Philip Souza who ooms when he should pah, and adds the news that the Jew’s Harpist has applied for a visa.

Stoppard’s characteristic verbal dexterity is enhanced by Previn’s music, which is entirely apt in terms of mood, mimicry and style. It recalls why Previn won four film score Oscars.

The way in which the players of the Southbank Sinfonia are themselves drawn into the performance, the introduction of elements of modern dance, the riveting acting of the three main characters, and the direction overall – make this an entirely contemporary piece of total theatre. Hiring Felix Barrett and Tom Morris to direct has created a pool of talent across the generations.

Musical readers will know that Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is a mnemonic for the five lines of the treble clef – and the prisoner/patient Alexander too has a list of letters to remind him why he is locked up. “How did you come here?” asks Ivanov.

Alexander explains that prisoner ‘C’ was his friend, sent to prison for protesting when ‘A’ and ‘B’ were sent to a labour camp. He was confined when he protested about what happened to ‘C’. The complex links of this chain of courageous protest continue up to the plight and history of ‘P’.

In real life, ‘C’ was Fainberg’s friend Vladimir Bukovsky, one of the first to expose the Stalinist regime’s use of psychiatric prisons and drugs. He spent a total of 12 years in Soviet prisons, labour camps and forced treatment psychiatric hospitals.

Bukovsky is now a dissident again, returning to Russia last year to stand in the presidential elections, denouncing the murder of journalists – more than 50 since Putin came to power – and once again, the use of psychiatry as a tool of repression.

Outside the hospital and beyond reach of the music, Alexander’s son Sasha struggles with geometry lessons and his father’s plight. Coerced by his teacher (Bronagh Gallagher) to try and persuade Alexander to accept that he was mad and is now cured, he cries: “Be brave Daddy, tell them lies.” For comfort he folds and unfolds his treasure – a newspaper article published in the West.

But in the end it takes a semantic trick by the KGB general in charge of the hospital to free both inmates. Alexander asks his doctor if the general is a doctor of psychiatry – “No, of philology,” is the reply, a reminder of how words were manipulated beyond the Stalin regime, through the Brezhnev years, until Gorbachev blew it all up with glasnost.

But today the KGB archives where Bukovsky put together his case against Stalinist repressions, are once again shut tight. The main positions of power and wealth are held by former KGB officers, and text books are being rewritten to reinstate Stalin as a great leader and father of the nation.

On December 4 last year, nine Internal security policemen, including two wearing black face masks, raided the offices of Memorial, the organisation devoted to exposing the crimes of the Stalin regime. In Russia, Memorial’s director Irina Flige says, "the front line between despotism and democracy runs through the past".

The play is in repertory at the National Theatre, Southbank, London until 25 February 2009

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