As I booked my tickets for this play, I was wondering if this concept of Tom Stoppard’s script and Andre Previn’s music would work.
Firstly I just want to mention the National Theatre itself, I’ve not been to the National for a good many years (early 1990’s in fact – that makes me feel old!), their ordering of tickets and website has to be the best I’ve used. I also like the fact I can buy the program and/or the script for the play as and when I order my tickets (I always get a program, except when they’re ludicrously expensive as some musicals seem to be making them). It’s a welcome change when some ticket vendors or theatres seem to make the purchasing of tickets via the website as hard as possible, or when they add a “donation” to your ticket price automatically. The National ask if you’d like to make one, not sneakily add it to your bill in the hope you won’t notice.
Does this collaboration of sinfonia and script work? Indeed it does, Stoppard’s witty and disturbing script is ably assisted and complemented by Previn’s score. Is this just a cute idea, of two leaders in their field collaborating to produce some trite work, hardly, EGBDF has to be one of the most powerful pieces of theatre I’ve witnessed. The story is truly disturbing, a sane man Alexander, put in a psychiatric hospital (prison) because he voices his dissent at the political system under which he lives (Soviet Russia in the 70’s), who won’t be released until he admits he’s been cured of his madness. Yet Stoppard manages to inject great comedy into this play so that it never strays into melodrama. Previn’s score comes to the fore appropriately and resumes it’s bubbling under the surface as and when the play requires. The music conveys cleverly the intensity of Ivanov’s madness and allows us into his unreal world.
The Southbank Sinfonia, play (and act)superbly, and are pushed to their limits as they have to deal with cast intermingling with them and in particular one scene where members of the orchestra are being rounded up by the authorities, this scene was one of the highlights for me, as music, acting and dance all intermingled to show us the horror of the regime. I’m not sure how the cellists feel about Stoppard’s script though as they’re repeatedly put down by Ivanov!
The cast strike the right balances; Julian Bleech plays “the mad conductor” with sensitivity and humour that never feels over the top. Adrian Schiller as Alexander is moving and scarily realistic in the hunger strike scenes. The supporting cast of Jonathan Aris as the doctor, Pandora Collin as the teacher and Wesley Nelson as Sacha, help us to gain another perspective to the characters, they’re the sane ones outside the hospital, and Wesley Nelson is especially moving in his scenes where he’s trying to get his father to “not be so rigid”.
This was a creative, moving and clever piece of theatre, and I’m glad the National took the challenge to revive this play and that they’ve done it so capably. My only regret is that I saw it on the last performance, so if you’re now hoping to go and see it you’ll have to wait for the next revival (or hope the NT do a tour of it).