Monday, 16 February 2009


14/2/09, Olivier.

1hr 5 mins. Very good: witty, pointed, music and spoken word beautifully integrated and likewise movement and dance. Arguably a rather slight piece and dated... except that totalitarian regimes and unjust incarceration remain a feature of the modern world, and it's quite possible some poor souls are locked up as lunatics merely for expressing political opposition to the regime.

Toby Jones, Joseph Millson as the two Ivanovs incarcerated in a lunatic asylum circa 1977. The former a madman who believes he can hear an imaginary orchestra playing; the latter a dissident, perfectly sane, who will be released once he admits he's mad (because only a madman would take on the Soviet state).

We, of course, can see and hear the orchestra which in this production occupied the Olivier revolve, across which a white path zigzagged from an entrance at the rear through the orchestra, past the desk representing the doctor's office, down to the two lunatics' prison (sorry, hospital) beds at the front.

Before it started it was clear the revolve would, um, revolve because the orchestra's seats were carefully arranged within it but I couldn't see how that was possible without breaking up the zigzag pathway. Answer: it turned a partial circle periodically, breaking the pattern decisively and disturbingly, only returning to its starting position and re-establishing the pattern at the very end. Clever.

Also before it started I counted the band and counted the names of the players listed and they didn't tally. Why became clear later. The doctor, a keen amateur violinist, emerged from the orchestra. And so, during one musical interlude, did a bunch of dancers: one of the French horns stripped off his white tie and tails to reveal the dark green shirt and tie of a militiaman or prison warder and began manhandling a lady violinist, and so on. Surely a Tom Morris touch (he co-directed with Felix Barrett).

Andre Previn's music was sort of sub-Shostakovich, noisy at times, highly coloured and written at times to counterpoint the words; Stoppard's text typically dry and witty, delighting in logical absurdities, but by itself rather slight, little more than an extended sketch.

As well as the prisoner-patients we saw sane Ivanov's son, and his conformist schoolteacher. Ivanov goes on hunger strike (it worked in the KGB prison in which he was incarcerated previously), his son is despatched to persuade him to relent. He won't. The impasse is eventually resolved by a deus ex machina in the shape of a KGB colonel (in a ridiculously wide military cap) who strides on and, apparently wilfully and deliberately confusing the two inmates, asks sane Ivanov if he hears an orchestra, asks mad Ivanov if he thinks innocent people are ever imprisoned in lunatic asylums and, getting satisfactory answers from each, orders their release. Thus giving the authorities the last laugh.

D adds: The ending was especially effective. The musicians left the stage one by one while the music played (evidently on tape by this stage). The son pushed Dad in a wheelchair out of the hospital and along the white tiled winding road, all the way back to home/inifinity/the outside through overturned chairs and music stands. As the stage darkened before this short final scene I saw two pieces of set fall and was wondering what was happening, and then the lights went up revealing this very deep (as far as the back wall?), film-like reflection or projection of the path disappearing way off into the distance.

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