Tom Stoppard wrote his play for actors and orchestra in 1977 at the suggestion of Andre Previn, who said he had an orchestra. (He did have an orchestra, it was the London Symphony.) The resultant short play, directed by Trevor Nunn, was a meditation on madness, music and incarceration in a Russian psychiatric hospital, where two prisoners share a cell.
Even six years after the premiere, Alexander Solzhenitzyn, the exiled dissident writer, told Bernard Levin that he never expected to return to his mother country. It is a sad mark of the way the world is that, long after the dissolution of Communism, the terror contained in the comedy of Stoppard’s conceit – the two prisoners are a madman with an imaginary orchestra and a writer convicted of “slander” – still reverberates.
I never thought I’d see the play again, and now that I have I’m not sure I needed to. The revival by Felix Barrett, artistic director of Punchdrunk, and Tom Morris, the NT associate director who is opening so many new doors on the South Bank, is curiously flat and disappointing. There’s not really a surprise element any more in the idea of a madhouse of musicians, even if some of them now cavort surprisingly around the music stands.
This “physical theatre” innovation replaces the real pain and anger of the dissident’s position, while the writer’s son, Sacha, who is taking lessons in geometry from a private teacher (Bronagh Gallagher), is played nonsensically by a female actor, Bryony Hannah; the optimism of Sacha’s incantatory pleading doesn’t bite as it once did.
Toby Jones is oddly subdued as Ivanov, the befuddled triangle player, and Joseph Millson blandly perplexed as the writer, Alexander, with Dan Stevens brightly manic as the alarmingly “normal” doctor and Alan Williams a strangely unauthoritative colonel in the last scene.
The sixty-five minutes skim by with some vintage Stoppard jokes and ironies, and the Southbank Sinfonia under Simon Over’s baton allow Previn’s music to rise tantalisingly like a mist, with a little taste of Prokofiev here and a brief quotation from the “1812” there. But the impression is fleeting, rather than hilarious or disturbing.