Bruce Guthrie is visibly excited. The head of theatre at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai, is all set to stage his first play in India as director after the covid-19 pandemic restrictions. And what a play he has chosen. Award-winning playwright Sir Tom Stoppard’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour was first staged in 1977 as a part of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee celebrations, and has since been performed across the world. The political satire about the terrors of living in an orchestrated society has been billed as “a play for actors and an orchestra”.
Guthrie’s Indian production has an all-star cast, including Neil Bhoopalam, Denzil Smith, Sohrab Ardeshir, Deepika Deshpande Amin and Mihaail Karachiwala. They are accompanied by a 45-piece orchestra, the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI), performing live.
This “all-encompassing piece of total theatre”, as The Guardian described Stoppard’s play, sees Bhoopalam and Smith play different characters with the same name—Alexander Ivanov. While Bhoopalam’s character is a dissident, who speaks against the regime, Smith’s Alexander is a schizophrenic patient, who believes he is part of an orchestra. The two find themselves sharing a cell in a Soviet mental hospital. Bhoopalam’s Alexander will not be released from the asylum until he admits that his statements against the government were a result of mental illness. “As the dissident’s son begs his father to free himself with a lie, Tom Stoppard’s darkly funny and provocative play asks if denying the truth is a price worth paying for liberty,” mentions a note by NCPA.
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On a sunny weekday, I arrive at the rehearsal hall to watch the cast prepare for the play. Ardeshir, who plays a character simply called Doctor, is trying to convince Smith that there is indeed no orchestra around him. Movement director Rachel D’Souza pays close attention as Smith goes around the set, conducting music for the imaginary orchestra only he can see and hear.
Guthrie, a Stoppard fan, says the play has been on his radar for a while now. “I think like with any great play, it has touch-points of humanity and the human experience that people can relate to. It’s about a man who stands up for what he believes is right, and at stake is his life and that of his son. How far does one go for the principals, the morals one believes in and how difficult can life be for him —those are some of the issues here,” he says.
Smith couldn’t agree more. Even though the play was first staged in 1977 and was set in communist Russia, the actor believes that its relevance has grown manifold over the years. “It is about freedom of speech and you can see in many parts of the world that laws, which curtail that freedom, are being acted upon. On a personal as well as political level, there is a lot of common ground,” he adds. Bhoopalam seconds his opinion. “In many economies today, the focus is on making money but that does not guarantee happy citizens. Several countries suppress their people and that is reflected in this play. You see that with the Doctor and the Teacher as well as with our characters,” he says. Ardeshir and Amin play Doctor and Teacher respectively, who are an integral part of the ‘system’. These characters are responsible for ingraining the policies of the communist state in the minds of the citizens to get them to conform to the regime.
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The music and text are interwoven in the play, with the orchestra becoming a key character as well. The orchestra was, in fact, one of the reasons for the play’s existence in the first place. Composer, conductor and pianist Andre Previn had approached Stoppard with the idea of doing a play with an orchestra. Only a handful of companies around the world are capable of mounting a production such as this, and it was only the SOI’s presence at the NCPA that meant they could manage to pull it off.
Guthrie is also thankful to the amazing cast. “It’s a challenging play—physically, mentally and psychologically. Their movements have to be precise and in sync with the orchestra, because the musicians will always be precise,” he says.
Every Good Boy Deserves Favour at Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, NCPA between 4-6 November, 2022.