First performed in 1977, this play with music was written by Tom Stoppard and the music was composed by André Previn. In fact, Previn apparently suggested the idea of a collaboration to Stoppard around 1974, and both soon agreed that it was to be a play rather than a platform piece, and that the play would be 'bound up with' the orchestra. True to their words, the result is indeed a play, and the orchestra turns out to be almost an additional character, or multiple characters to be more accurate. There's a central cast of 6 plus a full orchestra – in this production, the Southbank Sinfonia, conducted by Simon Over.
Two 'patients' in a mental hospital share a ward – for ward, read 'cell' because the so-called hospital is a prison in all but name. The patients also share the same name – both are called Ivanov. One is a deluded lunatic who believes he is surrounded by an orchestra and the other Ivanov is a dissident who has been incarcerated because of his political beliefs. If the latter can accept that he has been 'cured' he will be released, but he refuses to acquiesce and is given drugs and tortured.
The play begins with an incredibly quiet passage from the orchestra. It could be a breath or even a whisp of free, fresh air. In the background, almost inaudible so that you wonder if you have really heard it, there is screaming – a hint of what is happening in this 'hospital'. Ivanov the lunatic is alone in his cell accompanying the orchestra on his triangle. He's obsessed by music and his 'imagined' orchestra. This gives rise to much humour when he's joined in his cell by Ivanov the dissident who cannot play a musical instrument and has no interest in music. In the scenes which follow, we see both Ivanovs being treated by a doctor, and the dissident's son at school.
The orchestra, which is involved in the action at different points in the play, is a metaphor for society as a whole – 'we have to act together' says the doctor who treats the patients, and his words are even echoed by the lunatic. The implication is that those who don't fit into society must be 'treated' to make them comply.
The giant Olivier stage is devoid of scenery, providing a bleak and austere backdrop. Only the patients' beds, the doctor's desk and a schoolroom desk define the locations for different scenes. A simple window, lowered from the ceiling is the only other scenery used.
Adrian Schiller plays the dissident, and Julian Bleach is the lunatic. Both give mesmerising performances. Lunatic Ivanov becomes the instruments of the orchestra in his mannerisms. His arms flail, his body coils, tenses and then relaxes almost like strings being plucked or sound waves flying through the air. And even the timbre of his voice has a musical quality. Adrian Schiller on the other hand, is the stubborn dissident who will not compromise his principles simply to obtain his 'freedom'. As his body starts to fail under the duress of torture and drugs, he refuses to capitulate to the authorities, even when his son begs him to do so.
The concept is unusual and may seem odd, but in fact it works superbly well. The power of the piece lies in two main elements. First, Previn's powerful and unsettling score provides another level of emotional intensity to the play. And since the orchestra is a part of the action and the storyline, it takes on its own character and significance. For example, there's a kind of ritual dance where members of the orchestra are tortured.
Overall, this is an immensely powerful and compelling play which, though it reminds us of the abhorrent treatment of dissidents in the Soviet Union (and elsewhere, by implication) touches on other issues such as family responsibilities and obsession. At just around an hour in length, it leaves you almost begging for more, because it is a riveting revival, brilliantly realised.