Bruce Guthrie and Mikel Toms on the making of Tom Stoppard’s play Every Good Boy Deserves Favour
The director and conductor talk about what went behind creating the dark political satire, which is set to premiere at NCPA Mumbai’s Jamshed Bhabha Theatre on November 4
By Reema Gowalla
I t isn’t always that we get to witness a theatrical production in India that is every bit phenomenal. Many would even agree that there is still a long way to go before we can consider the art form mainstream in the country. The National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA’s) latest project may change that perception. A one-of-a-kind coming together of theatre and music, NCPA is collaborating with the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) to bring back to the stage Czech-British playwright Sir Tom Stoppard’s 1977 masterpiece Every Good Boy Deserves Favour. For the original piece, Tom had worked alongside Oscar and Grammy Award-winning maestro André Previn, and it premiered as part of the late Queen Elizabeth II’s silver jubilee celebrations.
Now, the NCPA and SOI have teamed up for this ‘landmark theatre event in India, featuring an all-star cast and a 45-piece orchestra playing live on stage’. The plot revolves around two main characters — Ivanov (a schizophrenic triangle player, who often hears an orchestra in his head) and Alexander (a political prisoner, who has been declared insane for protesting against the regime). They both share a cell inside the Soviet psychiatric prison system.
Featuring noted actors Denzil Smith, Neil Bhoopalam, Deepika Deshpande Amin, Sohrab Ardeshir and child artiste Mihaail Karachiwala, the dark political satire is gearing up to premiere this Friday at NCPA’s Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. Ahead of its opening show, the play’s director Bruce Guthrie (Head of Theatre and Film at NCPA) and conductor Mikel Toms (Resident Conductor of SOI) throw light on the making of this piece. Excerpts from an exclusive conversation with TheatreRoom:
Q. We rarely get to see a theatrical production of this scale in India. You’re at the helm of the play. How would you describe it?
BG: Well, it is a big production. We have a 45-piece orchestra (with six members of a children’s percussion band), six actors and nearly 10 dancers, who will all be on stage at the same time. An arrangement like this brings its own challenges. That said, it’s a real joy for me as a director to be able to work on something like this. You get to play and create images and tell a story, which is epic in nature but actually is not that long.
It’s only a 65-minute piece, but there’s a lot packed into that. At NCPA’s Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, you get to work on a huge canvas. It’s also great working with these, who are very experienced, with the exception of eight-year-old Mihaail. Although he is making his debut on stage with this play, you wouldn’t know. The little man is just terrific and doing a fantastic job.
Such is the scale of the play; it’s big and ambitious. But then again, as Tom [Stoppard] would say, it feels like quite a simple play. And by that I don’t think he means the themes in which it deals with are simple. In fact, the themes are quite complex. The story is simple — that of a man who is being held in a mental hospital. It’s about speaking out against the government, because his friends have been put in the hospital for expressing their opinions. And then, he himself is sent to an asylum. He shares a cell in the prison with another man, who has been hit on the back of the head. The latter imagines that he can hear an orchestra and that he plays the triangle in the orchestra. That’s kind of the starting point of the play.
Q. The orchestra is described as a character in the play. What makes the live music so intrinsic to the plot?
MT: The play wouldn’t work without a live orchestra. One of the principal characters, Ivanov, is a patient in a Soviet psychiatric hospital. He imagines he has his own orchestra, in which he plays the triangle and SOI plays Ivanov’s imaginary orchestra on stage. To confuse matters, one of the characters is a doctor who does actually play in an orchestra, and so the distinction between Ivanov’s imagined world and reality is never entirely clearcut.
What the music is so good at doing in this play (as well as in film, television and opera etc.,) is illuminating the characters’ psyches and states of mind, of filling in the blanks between the spoken words and actions on stage. The other main character in the play, Alexander, has been diagnosed with mental illness for having spoken out against the Soviet regime. To some, he’s clearly completely sane, while to others, he’s mad. Having an ‘imaginary’ orchestra very visibly on stage seems to me to sum up this idea of obvious ‘truths’ being called into question or obvious hallucinations suddenly seeming more real than we initially thought. It’s something that couldn’t be achieved solely with a recorded soundtrack or with an orchestra tucked away in a pit under the stage.
Q. This rare blending of theatre and music on stage will make it a one-of-a-kind experience for the Indian audience. Do you agree? Your comments on the same.
MT: Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is very much a one-of-a-kind play for Indian and non-Indian audiences alike. I don’t think there’s anything quite like it in the Western theatre repertoire. Having said that, cultures across the world, including India, have rich traditions of live, onstage music — ranging from formal performances to more cabaret-style work and, of course, film so it’s not a completely alien concept. One of the things I like about the play is that it breaks down the ‘fourth wall’ that is very rarely broken down. We’re used to characters in films turning to address the viewers from time to time. I love the concept of supposedly background or soundtrack musicians coming to the foreground from time to time — moving from the role of unconscious commentator to active participant in the drama.
Q. Given the world’s geopolitical situation at this moment, it is said that the play couldn’t have been revived at a better time. What do you think about its relevance at the present time?
BG: It’s kind of graduated into a sort of Brechtian play now, and by that, I mean it makes comments that are relevant today by using a past event. When the play was written in 1977, the Prague Spring had just happened. The people of Czechoslovakia had revolted against the Russians. And the Russians went with armed forces and steamrollered this rebellion. They did that in about eight months. But it was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union, as about 15 years later the USSR was no more. Tom didn’t know that it was going to be the case when he wrote it. So, I think that in that sense, it becomes relevant. You see the difference that a person can make. In fact, every single person has an impact and can make a difference. And I think that’s the most interesting bit about it.
The play talks a lot about freedom of speech and the right to express one’s opinion and the right to call things out. When someone sees an injustice, you speak about it. We see a lot of different things out on the internet. For example, the invention of social media… What does that mean for freedom of speech in the 21st Century? People express all sorts of opinions, and there are opinions versus facts. So, we don’t just have local opinions, we also have global opinions and access to all sorts of thoughts and theories, and opinions and ideas from all over the world. And there is nothing like a universal law about the freedom of speech. In some countries, the freedom of speech is being eroded. I can speak specifically about the UK. At the moment, the government is enacting various different things, which are rolling back the right to protest. We have left the European Union. So, we are no longer a part of the European Charter of Human Rights. And what does that do? It changes the way in which we treat each other, our laws and our freedom of expression.
So, when it comes to freedom of speech, I think it’s a right and privilege that we have to treat it very seriously. You can’t just say what you want without impunity. There is an innate responsibility that every individual has to take with the stuff you put out there. You have to assume that someone is going to read that somewhere. And we all have a collective responsibility to the truth and to what is right, and that once again becomes subjective. Every Good Boy Deserves Favour kind of talks about that as well. It deals with that. It’s one of those plays that will make you laugh, you will twitch your forehead, hinting that you recognise that kind of bureaucracy — that ridiculous, twisted logic. The play makes you think, which is what great theatre does — it entertains, informs and excites you.
Q. As the director of the play, how challenging has it been for you to lead the project?
BG: Well, I’ve had the great fortunes of working on quite a few big-scale musicals in the past. And so, in some ways it’s a little bit like that. But this play is also very unique. For instance, people who are in the orchestra are used to playing on stage as part of the SOI or an ensemble, but they’re not necessarily used to everybody being able to see them all the time on stage and even when they’re not playing. That’s been an interesting challenge. The rehearsal time has been utterly critical for us.
We also have a tremendous cast and we’re all working very, very hard in order to be able to get this to where it needs to be. It’s quite a physical play, and for some of them, that has been tough, not to mention the challenge posed by the scale of the production. But I think that this will all come good. Once you put them in front of an audience and once we get all the real things in the music and the feel and the musicians see what the actors are doing, I think it’s just going to be dynamite. It’s going to be great. We have got an incredible set of actors and they are very good at what they do.
Q. Your experience of working with a cast that includes some incredible actors…
MT: The Coronavirus-induced lockdowns have inadvertently provided us with a set of tools that means we can prepare carefully in advance. Actor rehearsals have been taking place for a month now and the whole production team has been in regular touch via Zoom. Before I arrived in India last week, I used to receive recordings of rehearsals. We’re completely coordinated regarding the script and score, and I had also been able to create and send audio files to the production team in Mumbai, so that we all know exactly what each other is doing at any given moment in the play.
At one point, I sent a video of myself conducting a couple of sections of the play so that Denzil (who is playing Ivanov) can better mimic my movements. I love the irony of me filming myself conducting an imaginary orchestra, so that Denzil can mimic conducting a real orchestra playing the role of an imaginary orchestra. It very much gives a flavour of the knots that the characters in the play tie themselves into.
Q. Right now, it looks like a huge production to travel with. But given the opportunity, do you think this play should be taken outside Mumbai?
BG: I’d love this play to tour. I think it’s a big festival show. Of course, travelling with 60–70 people across the country to do a play can be a task, but I would love this piece to go places. It is one of those plays that are so rarely performed. It’s relevant, unique, funny, tough, heartbreaking, moving and uplifting — all at the same time. It’s such a mixture of different emotions that people go on with it, and we hope that’s what we deliver with it as well. I’d love to take it around to other places and share the play with other people. But it needs that live orchestra. One could do with the recording, but it won’t have the same impact. The orchestra is the spectacle of the play. It’s the feeling of that incredible score that André has put together that we want.
We’ve got an amazing international creative team — a mix of international and local talent. There’s Rachel D’Souza, who’s worked with The Company Theatre, and is the movement director for this play. Pallavi Patel has done the costume for us. Then, we’ve got Francis O’Connor. He’s a sensational set designer who’s won awards in the UK and America and all over the world. Rick Fisher, who’s won three Tony Awards and two Olivier Awards, is a wonderful lighting designer. And then we have Andy Collins, who has worked all over the world for Disney and various different national operas. It’s just a really terrific team. They will be working with people from here who are also incredibly talented, because we at NCPA want to encourage the next generation to be working with these guys and learning from them. It’s ambitious, but that’s what it should be.
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Catch the shows of Every Good Boy Deserves Favour on November 4 (7.30pm), November 5 (5pm and 7.30pm) and November 6 (5pm and 7.30pm) at NCPA. Book your tickets here.