The National Theatre in London Delivers with Every Good Boy Deserves Favour.

Posted on January 18th, 2010 by

One chilly evening in London, we made our first of many journeys to The National Theatre of London.   Appreciated for its beautiful architecture and purple lit grey concrete from the outside; inside it features three different theatres all with more than 400 seats.  On this particular day we sat in the Olivier Theatre, 1160 seats, to see the five star reviewed show Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. The show is back for a short stint of only 40 performances after being a smash, sold-out hit in 2009.  Going into the show most of us didn’t know what we were getting into except for an encompassing performance for orchestra and actors.

Entering the Olivier Theatre, named after the theatre’s first artistic director, I saw one of the most interesting uses of space I have ever seen on stage.  A full orchestra warming up their instruments, two drab beds, a white walkway weaving through the musicians to a white door upstage, a suspended window on the other side of the stage, and a single school desk downstage.   Curosity and excitement were already present before the show had started.  The famous British playwright Tom Stoppard wrote the text in 1977 at the request of Andre Pevin who had just met a Russian exile.  Andre Pevin then wrote the original musical score inspiring the subtitle: a play for actors and orchestra.  The story revolves around the struggles of a dissident, Alexander Ivanov, who is locked in a Soviet mental hospital without the opportunirty of being released, unless he admits that the hospital’s doctor has cured his supposed mental illness.  He shares a cell with another man named Ivanov who is actually mentally ill, and believes he is the conductor of a symphony orchestra that only exists in his head.  We are able to see into Ivanov’s madness because the orchestra on stage just so happens to be Ivanov’s.  The chilling and intense music that is being played gives us a clear sense of his struggle with adapting to his surroundings.  This intense, dark music is what constantly clouds his thoughts to the point where he thinks of nothing except music.  The other main characters we see are Alexander’s son Sacha, his schoolteacher, and the main doctor of the hospital.

We soon learn that Alexander is in the hospital because he was part of a movement that wrote and spoke against the Soviet government. Throughout the play the government wants Alexander to believe being against the people in power is a symptom of a mental illness.  Sacha’s school teacher comments about his father being crazy many times which makes Sacha retaliate in his school orchestra, also the one on stage, and so he is sentenced to detention.  He then pleads his father to lie in order to free himself from the prison, and Sacha from his troubles.   Alexander will not give in and soon becomes very ill because he will not eat.  Alongside this story we are given insight into the madness of Alexander’s cellmate.  Ivanov conducts his orchestra by the power of his triangle that is hidden under his pillow.   The orchestra becomes more and more violent, and starts to meld and interact with the rest of the ensemble on stage.  Whether they become Soviet officers disrupting the stage or people representing Alexander’s stories the amazing choreography of these sections is mindblowing.

Its impressive how many ideas and provoking thoughts they packed into this short piece.  The main themes that shone through for me concerned selling out and lying for freedom, thinking of different levels of reality, and examining the idea of being “crazy”.   This word “crazy” and its use was something that was ringing in my mind for a while.  We give this word different uses and meanings, but it always seems to be tied back to mental illnesses.  All of these different definitions can be used to describe the three main characters of this show, everyone is “crazy”. Alexander is crazy for not lying and getting out of that terrible prison.  Ivanov is crazy because he keeps directing an orchestra that only exists in his head, and it consumes him.  Sacha is crazy for not doing his schoolwork correctly, and letting the things his teacher is telling him bite at his core.

Unexpected action and unfolding of plot seem to be the most interesting things about this production.  The stage started very clean and organized but as the lights went out it was a complete disaster with half the orchestra chairs tipped over, hundreds of paper flyers falling from the ceiling, and the two beds destroyed.  Going in I didn’t expect the musicians in the orchestra to also be actors and dancers.  So, seeing them stand from their seat while the rest were playing to join the action in another way was exciting and unexpected.  The directors offered a lot of things for you to enjoy in a crisp and succinct 65 minutes: wonderfully directed actors, beautifully conducted musicians, and greatly choreographed dancers.  The intense action for a short period of time kept your focus throughout, and this was the first performance that I have seen here in London that did that for me.  Afterwards you were left wanting more, but yet so satisfied with what you have seen.  The fusion of all of these talented artists is something I hope to see again.


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