By Tom Stoppard and Andre Previn
Directed by Felix Barrett and Tom Morris
Venue: Olivier Theatre
Date: Friday 13th February 2009
Actually, much of this short play with orchestra merited an 8/10 rating, but then there was the overlong dance interlude, and being dance illiterate I found it dull and pointless. Otherwise, this was an interesting and entertaining look at the Soviet Union’s treatment of dissidents in the 1970s (and even now according to the program notes) through the experience of one man, who had spoken out against the state hospitalizing sane people. This is coupled with another man’s experience of an imaginary orchestra (in which he plays the triangle). Neither man can be released until he denies that which he knows to be true. The dissident is prepared to die for his truth, going on hunger strike and refusing to surrender even when his son pleads for him to say what they want to hear. The triangle player is also quite willing to state that he hears no orchestra, provided the doctor can get them to stop playing! The impasse is resolved by the gaudily uniformed KGB Colonel, sorry, doctor, marching into their cell, sorry, ward, and asking some simple straightforward questions. He asks Alexander Ivanov if he thinks a Soviet doctor would ever commit a sane man to a lunatic asylum, to which the triangle player responds ‘no’. The Colonel/doctor then asks Alexander Ivanov if he hears an orchestra, to which the dissident replies ‘no’. The Colonel/doctor decrees that both men are fit to be released. So, when the Colonel/doctor put two men with identical names in the same room, was he being extremely stupid, or was this a shrewd manoeuvre to get two ‘patients’ off his books? As Steve said, it looked like the first, but was actually the second.
The layout for this performance (I can’t really call it a set) was probably less complicated than it looked. On the revolve sat the orchestra, violins to the left at the start as usual. They wrapped around the conductor’s podium, which was in the centre of the revolve, but there was room at the front for two hospital beds, one occupied by the triangle player (Toby Jones). A light coloured wooden path led from the back wall, in a zigzag pattern, to the side of the beds, and along this path comes the dissident (Joseph Millson). There’s a school desk off to the right, forward of the revolve, and as the revolve turns during the performance, we see another desk, the doctor’s, snuggled in amongst the musicians. There are numerous banks of lights high up around the back wall, and a couple of double bass players are off to the right, also outside the revolve.
The orchestra, after the usual tuning up rituals, began to play silently as Toby rose from his bed, took out his triangle and little metal stick (what do they call those things, anyway?) and listened to the music, waiting for his cue. Gradually, the sound came in, and it was lovely music; in a modern style, with some slight dissonance giving it a bit of an edge but without scaring the horses. The triangle player had to stop them at one point, and told them to restart from the tympani bit, which they did. He strikes the final note on his triangle, and turns around to find a new person is in the room. The dissident has been quiet all this while, trying to figure out which of the two rumpled beds is meant to be his, and eventually plumping for the one Toby’s just left. Triangle player is keen to know what instrument the dissident plays, and isn’t put off by his total lack of experience with any musical instrument. He interrogates him avidly, in between complaining about the standard of the orchestra, and it’s a very funny scene, with lots of clever word play.
From here we get a mixture of music and dialogue, with the dissident explaining in a couple of speeches how he got arrested, and what he’s experienced in prison and hospital, which is what the authorities want to stop him talking about. We also see his son having difficulties in school because he doesn’t conform – his teacher tells him off because he played more notes on his triangle than were in the score – and find out that the doctor is also a part-time violinist in his own orchestra, which all adds to the fun. Then there’s the dance bit, with what looks like various members of the orchestra standing up and dancing a version of kicking the crap out of each other. It may have been good dancing, but it didn’t tell me anything about either Ivanov’s story, or the orchestra experience, so I can only assume it was inserted as some sort of special offer – you get the band, the dancers come for free.
There wasn’t much more after the dance, just the Colonel’s magnificent cure technique and the son finding his father, and then we were done. The orchestra had been leaving their seats gradually during this last bit, so I assume the music was pre-recorded, as I don’t see how they could have kept it going so strongly otherwise, but I’d be happy to learn differently.
And so we return home, reasonably happy with our evening, and hoping the signal failure at Haywards Heath won’t make us too late back. [12:30 a.m.!!! @*&%$£@!!!]
© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me