Olivier Theatre, London SE1
Opened 16 January, 2009

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 tomorrow and the inauguration of President Obama) it is Us who torture and hide it in other countries. Stoppard’s play says nothing about today’s Russia nor about our own conduct, despite 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 which 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 members of the National Theatre’s near neighbours 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 is usually seen in more romantic and classical roles than Alexander the dissident, but his shaven-headed dignity here is affecting; Bryony Hannah is a slight, bemused, distressed figure as his young son Sacha. Previn’s music, though obviously 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, both this revival and his last new play Rock ’n’ Roll suggest that the geo-political sense of this most complex of playwrights is paradoxically bound by the simple binaries of the Cold War.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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