"I have no symptoms,” asserts Alexander Ivanov, vehemently, to the doctor of the mental asylum where he has been forcefully admitted. “I have opinions.”
“Your opinions are your symptoms,” replies the doctor. “You are suffering from dissent.”
This amusing but sharp exchange of words is from Tom Stoppard’s play Every Good Boy Deserves Favour set in the Soviet Union of the 1970s. It first premiered in 1977 in the UK and was staged in Mumbai recently at the National Centre for Performing Arts by a team of international technicians and Indian actors. After all these decades, the play continues to be relevant.
Alexander Ivanov, who has opinions, played very convincingly by Neil Bhoopalam, has to share a cell-like room with a schizophrenic patient, with a similar-sounding name, Ivanov Alexander. The latter, played powerfully by Denzil Smith, is here because he hallucinates, imagining himself to be a music conductor, orchestrating grand operas. Though apparently very different, the two men could well be two sides of a coin, a threat to a totalitarian state that is intolerant of individuals asserting themselves.
Stoppard wrote this play on the suggestion of his friend, music composer and pianist Andre Previn. As a child, Previn had fled from Nazi Germany to the USA with his family. He composed the music for the play and Stoppard wrote a complex story inspired by the trauma of friends who had been imprisoned by the Soviets in Czechoslovakia. As a child, Stoppard, too, had fled from the Nazis with his family to the East. The play that emerged was a searing exposé of the Soviet Union which had systematically purged the state of dissenting voices.
Directed by Bruce Guthrie, the Mumbai production was spectacular. From the very first scene, where a very large sickle and hammer occupy a prominent place on the stage, to the last scene where Alexander Ivanov’s young son, Sacha, emerges from within its iron-clad fold to wipe away his father’s tears, the sixty-minute play enthrals you with its dramatic flourishes, even as it focuses on the perils of dictatorial governments. A live orchestra plays spell-binding compositions enhancing the mood of many scenes, and sometimes even taking the plot forward. It is a powerful metaphor for both, the state that orchestrates its citizens’ lives down to the smallest detail, and an individual’s desire to create his own music.
Another telling metaphor that is omnipresent through the play is the triangle, signifying a host of ideas. A large, illuminated one hangs menacingly over the asylum where the music-loving Ivanov plays a small steel one in a way that sounds like the clanging of a prison bell. At the same time, Sacha is forced to play a musical triangle in his school by his dominating teacher, much against his will. Sometimes, Sacha, movingly played by Mihail Karachiwala, is asked to define a triangle. “A triangle is a polygon bounded by the fewest possible sides,” he parrots, though geometry is a subject he detests.
The definition has frightening connotations, accentuated by the sets that include three elevated triangular platforms, denoting a classroom, a psychiatric ward, and a doctor’s chamber, all symbolic of a claustrophobic regime. Deepika Deshpande Amin, who plays the stern schoolteacher to scary perfection, elaborates on the regimented educational system, “In any totalitarian regime, the school is the first point of indoctrination. Young minds are taught to conform, to think the way the state wants them to. They are taught to hate, they are taught to fear, and they are taught to toe the line. The school is the first point of propaganda.”
However, Alexander, who has been thrown into the prison-like hospital for crusading against false propaganda and the injustice of men being rounded up for speaking the truth, refuses to conform. Though pressurised by the hospital authorities to speak well of the state, he refuses to do so and goes on a hunger strike instead. The state cannot risk him dying in the hospital; they bring his son to the asylum to talk him out of his stand. “Papa, don’t be rigid. Tell them the lies they want you to speak,” pleads Sacha, who is being tormented in school for his father’s moral beliefs. But Alexander will not be cowed down. “One plus one is three, they tell you in school. Don’t believe them. Remember one plus one is always two,” he tells the little boy.
Denzil Smith, who plays the orchestra-obsessed Ivanov, gives an interesting reason why the triangle is one of the leitmotifs of the play. “We had a little chat with Sir Stoppard about it. He revealed that when he was studying at a boarding school in Darjeeling, he had been given a triangle to play in the school band and that he was very bad at it. That stuck with him for a very long time. Finally, he put it in this play.”
Smith adds, “The triangle also stands for the unholy trinity of the State, the People and the Police. So it runs like a mnemonic through the play.”
The doctor, though nameless, has a role to play in the unholy trinity. Actor Sohrab Ardeshir, who plays the character with both grim and comic effect, describes the doctor’s helplessness in an authoritarian state. “The fact that the doctor has not been given any name shows that he is just a cog in the wheel, one of the many, many faceless workers of the State. I see him as a person who tries to keep a low profile, who plays along with the system, not wanting to rock the boat. But he has the difficult job of persuading Alexander, a dissenter, to deny what he has said against the State. He reaches out to him through humour and banter but Alexander is rigid and insists on speaking the truth. The doctor’s failure to make Alexander fall in line could cost him his job, and possibly his life as well.”
While the doctor, like many other hapless victims of the state, has to do what he is told, his senior, a colonel, played by Zafar Karachiwala in a small, amusing cameo, finds a way around the system, giving a delightful twist to the plot. Revealing more would be a spoiler. Suffice it to quote Neil Bhoopalam who points out, “The scene with the colonel hits the nail on the head even as he keeps you guessing.”
That is what Stoppard does through all sixty minutes of the play: keeps you guessing with intriguing subtext. His incredible script is brought alive on stage by a team of very skilled artistes directed by Guthrie. Apart from the actors doing justice to his dialogues, there is The Symphony Orchestra of India performing Andre Previn’s marvellous compositions. The lighting and sound experts, costume and set designers, movement director, dancers and others are spot-on. A moment of high drama early in the play takes place when the musicians build up to a stirring crescendo, and light designer Rick Fisher simultaneously lights up the backdrop in blazing red, with a hammer, sickle and star projected on it. As the play progresses, movement director Rachel D’Souza keeps the drama going. Whether it is the march of soldiers, the tip-toeing of ballet dancers or even the movements of the asylum inmates, D’souza ensures the dramatic element is intact throughout, ably supported by the stage crew that swiftly, unobtrusively moves the minimalistic props around to create different settings.
All in all, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour deserved the resounding applause it got as the team took a bow at the end of a very thought-provoking show.
(Alpana Chowdhury is an independent journalist and has been published in various news outlets)
(This appeared in the print edition as "All in an Asylum")