“You see all the trouble writers cause? They spoil things for ordinary people.” Tom Stoppard’s ‘Every Good Boy Deserves Favour’ practically dares us to write a bad review, but the 1977 dark comedy about Soviet dissidents holds up in light of the current political climate.
The Saint John Theatre Company and Tutta Musica, under the direction of maestro Antonio Delgado, have ambitiously teamed up for this rarely seen production; a unique theatre experience of a comedy featuring a full orchestra, not in the pit, but right there on stage as a character.
The play is set in a mental institution: home to the genuinely insane, like the wild-eye Ivanov (Alexander Johnson), subject to the delusion that he suffers from perpetual orchestral accompaniment. However, the hospital also provides a convenient oubliette for enemies of the state, such as Ivanov’s truly miserable cellmate, Alexander (Jake Martin), deemed insane for speaking out against the iron-fisted government, or as the doctor (Bob Doherty) puts it, a “pathological development of the personality with paranoid delusions. […] Your opinions are your symptoms. Your disease is your dissent.” Imprisoned for speaking out against his friends being imprisoned for speaking out, Alexander is ultimately faced with the folly of admitting his protest is a result of his insanity, or that of suffering needlessly while his son Sacha (Alex Sinclair) also suffers from his absence.
Tom Stoppard wrote Every Good Boy Deserves Favour at the request of composer André Previn, or rather any work to be accompanied by a live orchestra on stage. Stoppard was given carte blanche, but having already established that the orchestra must necessarily be imaginary for practical story-telling purposes, the play only evolved to include the stories inspired by the lives of refugee Soviet dissidents Victor Fainberg and Vladimir Bukovsky, after a chance meeting. The play’s inaugural performance included both Sir Ian McKellen, and Sir Patrick Stewart, and later went on to be performed by the rest of the Enterprise’s bridge crew.
Saint John Theatre Company’s Stephen Tobias explains, “We pick these productions two, three years in advance, but it seems more relevant today.” Director Dean Turner echoes the sentiment, suggesting that it’s a history we may see repeated within our own country with the passing of Bill C-51, known as the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2015. The bill is intended to allocate more power to police, and security institutions, but has raised some eyebrows when it comes to freedom of expression, privacy, and the right to peaceful protest.
The resulting production is a quiet snub to the political status quo. Discordant in tone, but with a steady stream of one-liners, the play reads like M*A*S*H but without the irreverence; not Alan Alda’s tongue-in-cheek social commentary, but Donald Sutherland’s more despondent film of 1970. The Spartan sets leave a sense of desolation amidst a very crowded stage, the orchestra looming large, dominating the ward. It’s awkward; an elephant in the room that the actors are perpetually stumbling about, like an overbearing mental illness. As Ivanov, Alexander Martin does an excellent job of competing against an entire orchestra for our attention with his antics.
Theatregoers will have ample chance to see the production in coming weeks, with seven shows in four cities. For more information check out the Saint John Theatre Company’s webpage or their Facebook page.
March 19, 7:30 p.m., Imperial Theatre, Saint John, NB
March 20, 7:30 p.m., Imperial Theatre, Saint John, NB
March 21, 2:00 p.m., Imperial Theatre, Saint John, NB
March 21, 7:30 p.m., Imperial Theatre, Saint John, NB
March 31, 7:30 p.m., Capitol Theatre, Moncton, NB
April 1, 7:30 p.m., Playhouse, Fredericton, NB
April 4, 2:00 p.m., Salle Léo Poulin, Edmundston, NB