On Saturday evening I saw an excellent production of Every Good Boy Deserves Favour
at the National Theatre. Sir Tom Stoppard and André Previn’s play tells the story of a dissident, Alexander, who is locked up in an asylum. If he accepts that he was ill, has been treated and is now cured, he will be released. He chooses to refuse.
Stoppard dedicated his play to Victor Fainberg and Vladimir Bukovsky; Soviet political dissidents, authors and political activists whose personal accounts of the use of psychiatric abuse in mental institutions in the USSR, exposed the horrifying reality of life under the Communist Party’s rule. The play is based on Fainberg’s chilling account.
After seeing the play I turned to the reviews to see what others thought. Through my searches I came across one from last year’s run that deserves rebuttal. Although he likes the play, Ian Shuttleworth of the FT thought: “To put it harshly, this bleak, fantastical indictment of the Soviet Union’s use of psychiatric hospitalisation against dissidents is a play for yesterday”. His concern is that the “play says nothing about today’s Russia or about our own conduct”. I vehemently disagree with this. Governments around the world still lock up political prisoners under the pretext of being mentally ill. It is a warning from history that should not be forgotten.
Admittedly history does not always split its actors easily into goodies and baddies. However, when it does we should embrace the lessons that it teaches us. Soviet dissidents were and are heroes of freedom, while their abusers were either wolves or sheep that orcastrated or supported the system. The message of this play rings eternal.