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Every Good Boy Deserves Favour

Mrs P., Miss P. the Younger and I were at the National last night for the revival of Tom Stoppard and Andre Previn's "play for actors and orchestra" from the 70's. Theatre is now all I miss about living in England. Russia has a superb theatre culture, but my Russian isn't up to accessing it.

The piece is set in a Soviet-era mental hospital where two men with the same name - a genuine headcase accompanied by his own imaginary orchestra and a dissident - share the same cell (or "ward") as the gaoler/psychiatrist would have it. It's a fascinating time to revive this play, which dates from the dying years of the previous Labour administration - just two years before Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and formed the team with President Reagan, which would bring down the USSR.

It doesn't sound like a fun night out, but it is. The subject matter could not be more serious and Stoppard does not trivialize it, but there are many light moments - mainly provided by the character with the imaginary orchestra - and by the orchestra itself, which never leaves the stage until the end. The humour makes the piece far more effective. One might reflect - as we did - that it would not be possible to write such a piece about repression if it were set in Nazi Germany, rather than in the Soviet Union. This says more about the biggest mistake in the teaching of history in Britain - the portrayal of Nazism as a unique, unrepeatable and specifically-German horror, than it does about Stoppard or the production.

One line chills more in contemporary Britain than it would have done in 1977. Under a government that is consciously trying to shape thought - to redefine what is socially and politically acceptable - one shudders to hear the subverted psychiatrist say to the dissident, "Your opinions are your symptoms"


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