Every Good Boy Deserves Favour: the classic political satire reclaims the stage at NCPA with a live orchestra
Actors Denzil Smith, Neil Bhoopalam and Deepika Deshpande Amin talk about their experience of being part of this landmark collaboration between NCPA and Symphony Orchestra of India
By Reema Gowalla
“I have no symptoms, I have opinions.”
“Your opinions are your symptoms. Your disease is dissent.”
Everybody loves a scathing political satire. Especially the ones that ride on anger and wit; tyranny and reality. Czech-British playwright Sir Tom Stoppard’s play Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, for which he had collaborated with Oscar and Grammy Award-winning maestro André Previn, is a rare piece of art in this genre. The play first opened to the audience in 1977 as part of the late Queen Elizabeth II’s silver jubilee celebrations, with critics’ responses ranging from ‘ambitious’ to ‘preposterous’. In essence, the plot denounces the Soviet practice of confining political dissidents to mental asylums. Cut to the present, the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) has teamed up with Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) to give the classic a new lease of life in what can be described as a ‘landmark theatre event in India, featuring an all-star cast and a 45-piece orchestra playing live on stage’.
Directed by Bruce Guthrie — Head of Theatre and Film at NCPA — Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is all set to take the stage at Jamshed Bhabha Theatre in Mumbai early next month. The plot revolves around two principal 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.
“It’s a fabulous script. The language of the play is profound and evocative. The piece is a spectacle that will impress both theatre and music lovers,” says actor Denzil Smith, who plays Ivanov, adding, “Even though the play was written decades ago, it couldn’t have returned to stage at a better time. This classic is quite relevant in this day and age as well. The narrative primarily focuses on the lack of freedom of expression and the plight of ‘dissidents’ under a totalitarian regime. It shows how one who has an opinion different from that of the state is often pushed into the dark. The play also investigates the role of the media in a fascist state.”
Actor Neil Bhoopalam, who will be seen as Alexander in the play, describes it as a witty and clever piece of writing. “It’s a one-of-a-kind theatrical gem that will always remain pertinent. Since the beginning of time, voice has been suppressed around the world. For things to get rectified and to build harmony, we need an open channel. That’s the takeaway from the play,” he adds.
According to Neil, who considers theatre his passion and films his trade, André’s music is counted as a character in the play for a reason. He says, “It’s as impactful as the complex monologues. The music serves as text in the narrative. The orchestra not only juxtaposes with the actors in the play, but also elevates the overall experience of the performance notches higher.” In this piece, the music is helmed by the Resident Conductor of SOI Mikel Toms, while Andy Collins and Matthew Scott are the sound designer and music supervisor respectively. Interestingly, the play’s title is a mnemonic for the arpeggiated musical ninth — EGBDF.
In the aftermath of a raging virus that saw cardinal changes being made in the way theatre is created and consumed in India, a production of this scale and magnitude is dubbed a major milestone. The set of the play (designed by Francis O’Connor) deserves special mention here, along with lighting designer Rick Fisher, movement director Rachel D’Souza and costume designer Pallavi Patel.
Travelling with a production like this — which comprises actors, crew and an orchestra — may seem a bit ambitious at this moment, but it sure does pave the way for performances of such grandeur in the country. “The very purpose of performing arts is to draw an audience, more so after over two years of closed auditoriums, thanks to the pandemic. That said, we rarely get to see a collaboration of this measure in India. Bruce is a fantastic director, who allows the actor to explore and be comfortable in the plot, before he dives in and then slowly explains the nuances of the character. Topping it off, we have an incredible cast and not to mention an orchestra playing live on stage,” says Denzil.
Adding to that, actor Deepika Deshpande Amin, who plays the teacher (the only female character) in the play, says, “Most Indian plays are crafted keeping in mind that it will tour different parts of the country in the days ahead. There are mega productions that run for years, and are loved by connoisseurs and enthusiasts alike. Being part of Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, on the other hand, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s an intense script that demands dedication and in-depth preparation. The play is a dark satire that reminds us that history repeats itself. The storyline was relevant in the past, and it will continue to be in the present and future. It only reflects the way mankind thinks and behaves.”
Giving a little insight, Deepika says, “My character in the play basically represents the system. She is someone who is strict and believes in the concept of ‘starting them young’. She is a teacher who finds sense in propaganda, and honestly believes that living under the regime is better than how life used to be before that. What the dissidents call surveillance, she considers protection. The character represents the section of society that has struggled with hunger for so long that ‘freedom of speech’ doesn’t really matter to them any longer. She thinks it’s her responsibility to ensure that the next generation also toes the line. According to her, there is no point getting above yourself, because tall poppies get quickly cut down.”
Every Good Boy Deserves Favour is a dark satire peppered with moments of humour, pun and wit. “The play is evocative, interesting and funny,” says Deepika. With just a few days left for the show to premiere show (on November 4), the actors are clocking six to eight hours of rehearsals every day. “It’s been an intense and enlightening journey so far, almost like going back to school. Given the gravity of each character in the play, and the tenacity of a live orchestra to match with, it only makes sense to give our best,” says Neil. The 65-minute piece also features actors Sohrab Ardeshir and child artiste Mihaail Karachiwala.
Catch the play on November 4 (7.30pm), November 5 (5pm and 7.30pm) and November 6 (5pm and 7.30pm) at NCPA. Book your tickets here.