Me: Doctor! There’s a play inside my head!
Doctor: Really? How extraordinary? Is it an examination of youth culture through a veil of historical parallels inspired by German pop music?
Me: Why yes, it is. But that’s not the play I’m talking about.
Doctor: It’s the one you’re usually talking about.
Me: Well, yes. But right now I’m thinking of a play with an orchestra.
Doctor: An orchestra? With a play?
Doctor: Well, my dear boy, that’s not a play. That’s a musical.
Me: But there aren’t any songs.
Doctor: Then what on Earth is the orchestra there for?
Me: Someone offered it to Tom Stoppard.
Doctor: So what’s it doing in your head?
Me: Well, the play inside my head is also by Tom Stoppard.
Doctor: Doesn’t that mean it’s inside Stoppard’s head?
Me: No, it’s at the National.
Doctor: So what the devil are you seeing me for?
Me: Well, it’s a play about mental illness. Or the perception of mental illness. And it has two men named Alexander Ivanov, and a boy played by a girl named Sacha Ivanov..
Doctor: The girl is named Sacha Ivanov?
Me: No, the boy she plays is named Sacha Ivanov.
Doctor: That’s an awful lot of Ivanovs. Perhaps Mr. Stoppard should be seeing me instead of you.
Me: Well, this play *does* officially kick off his mania for examining the Soviet government more thoroughly explored in The Coast of Utopia and Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Doctor: But Rock ‘n’ Roll was set in Prague.
Me: Yes. Soviet Prague.
Doctor: ...I see. So tell me more about this bizarre idea for a play.
Me: Very well. Ivanov and Ivanov are cell mates, and Ivanov believes that he has an orchestra inside his head and, being obsessed with musicians, believes Ivanov is there to either join or sabotage his orchestra. At the same time, Ivanov is not there to join the orchestra but as a political prisoner who escaped the military prisons by going on hunger strike.
Doctor: Well he certainly beats to a different drummer.
Me: No, he’s quite clearly non-musical.
Doctor: Who, Ivanov? But he has an orchestra inside his head.
Me: No, the other Ivanov. Meanwhile little Ivanov is being told off for not being musical either, for failing to play in time, and for asserting his father’s innocence and sanity which simply will. not. do. We also get a fleeting revelation that Ivanov may be hiding behind his orchestra as a coping mechanism for his own unwelcomed political leanings.
Doctor: I’m beginning to see why this may make audiences mental.
Me: No, it’s actually quite brilliant - the fact that they all look nothing alike helps. Anyways, Ivanov tries to break free from his orchestra and fails while Ivanov asserts his sanity and refuses to lie that yes, he was mad (which he was for protesting) and therefore goes on another hunger strike which distresses the third Ivanov very much.
Doctor: So they all get shot then? That’s what normally happens in these circumstances.
Me: No, nobody gets shot, though a bassoonist gets beaten up rather badly and a few violinists go spinning. It’s quite an accomplishment that none of their plucking instruments got broken during the chaos. There’s also smart use of the Olivier’s revolve which never seems as tacky or dull as the one in Les Miz.
Doctor: Is anything as tacky or dull as Les Miz?
Me: Good point.
Doctor: But what of the actors? Surely there aren’t any actors running around in your head?
Me: No, I don’t allow actors into my head - load of good for nothings all of them. The same with musicians, which is why it’s frustrating to think of a play with an orchestra.
Doctor: Do they play all night?
Me: No, the play is a brief 65 minutes that feels like 90 but in a good way.
Doctor: In a good way?
Me: Well yes, it keeps me focused and entertained and it unfolds in a tense manner that neither flies by or plods and comes across as a well packed runtime.
Doctor: You’ve been cutting back on your theatre-going lately, haven’t you?
Me: Is it that obvious?
Doctor: Yes. Next thing you’ll tell me is that it’s worth spending two hours to go to Hammersmith or Wimbledon for a show because it’s a good experience.
Me: But you really SHOULD see Spring Awakening.
Doctor: And you’re delusional as well. So what’s left?
Me: Well, besides the question of who’s crazy, it’s a matter of knowing when it’s possible to game the system - or rather that in Soviet Russia, the system games you. Both Ivanovs attempt to subvert the system which in turn subverts their subversion and gets away scot-free, as do they.
Me: Yes. Who’d have thought that somebody could leave a Soviet Mental Hospital without getting shot?
Doctor: So happy endings all around!
Me: Well, no. Ivanov’s second hunger strike does him in and he dies as Ivanov comes to take him home while Ivanov is off dancing in the streets to an orchestra that doesn’t exist. And the woman at the National’s box office was a total bitch who I’m glad to see replaced by a ticket dispensing machine.
Doctor: Get out of my office. How dare you imply that we should have silent, efficient ticket collection machines who won’t make snarky remarks about queues and pretending to lose your tickets like the glorious staff around the West End?
Where: National Theatre (Olivier)
When: In rep until 25 Feb., Check the NT website for times.
How Much: £10-30 (Travelex Season)
Concessions: £10-25 depending on who you are and when you buy. Day seats for £10, can be booked online and at the BO.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £15 due to the short run time.
RZ Other Notes: It was tempting to go for a Stoppard double feature this week and take in “The Real Thing” at the Tabard, but time did not permit.