A play for yesterday

Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, Olivier Theatre, London

It feels miserly to award a three-star rating to such an enterprise. However, it is not solely the logistics of Tom Stoppard’s crazily ambitious 1977 play – written for six actors and a full symphony orchestra (directors Tom Morris and Felix Barrett also add several dancers) – that militate against its more frequent revival. To put it harshly, this bleak, fantastical indictment of the Soviet Union’s use of psychiatric hospitalisation against dissidents is a play for yesterday.

This is not to deny the comments in programme essays by Stoppard and one of the inspirations for the play, Vladimir Bukovsky, that Putin’s Russia may sometimes have as little regard for human life as its Soviet predecessor. But this world is not that one. Three decades ago there were an Us and a Them, and They used torture techniques, denied it and hid it in mental hospitals; today (at least until the inauguration of Barack Obama as US president) it is Us who torture and hide it in other countries. Stoppard’s play says nothing about today’s Russia or about our own conduct, in spite of an interpolated dance sequence in which several members of the orchestra are hooded and abducted by the military.

When dissident Alexander Ivanov makes a speech about the detention of numerous people identified only by a succession of letters of the alphabet, no one now recalls the then-topical “ABC” case that caused a sea-change in British attitudes to state secrecy. The play is left as a parable with nothing to parabolise about.

Morris and Barrett stage the piece with flair, naturally. The Southbank Sinfonia, play André Previn’s score as they sit on the Olivier’s revolve and in the imagination of deluded, hospitalised triangle-player Alexander Ivanov (yes, the same name), a role in which the out-of-kilter amiability of Toby Jones fits perfectly. Joseph Millson’s shaven-headed dignity here is affecting. Previn’s music, though well integrated, gains strangely little emotional purchase on the dramatic events, apart from a grim fantasia midway through. And although we may have partly missed the dense punning of early Stoppard, this revival and his last new play Rock ’n’ Roll suggest the geo-political sense of this most complex of playwrights is paradoxically bound by the simple binaries of the cold war.

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