Toby Jones on Tom Stoppard's 'Every Good Boy Deserves Favour'

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After five years in Hollywood, Toby Jones has been tempted back to the stage by a plum role in Tom Stoppard's 'Every Good Boy Deserves Favour', which ambitiously brings the orchestra up from the pit

  • Toby Jones on Tom Stoppard's 'Every Good Boy Deserves Favour'

    Toby Jones as Ivanov © Simon Annand

  • The last time I saw Toby Jones on stage, I probably laughed more than I have ever laughed in the theatre. In 2001, ‘The Play What I Wrote’ was devised by The Right Size as a tribute to the much-loved comedians Morecambe and Wise. Every night there was a different star guest, including Ralph Fiennes, whose first entry was pre-empted by Jones appearing wrapped in bandages declaring himself to be The English Patient. Jones also played a dog, Daryl Hannah, and a militant member of the M&W appreciation society.

    At the time, his fans consisted of fervent but hardly numerous admirers of his quirky, imaginative one man shows ‘Wanted Man’ and ‘Missing Reel’. He had trained with Jacques Le Coq in Paris and like so many other alumni was usually to be found at BAC, in Complicite productions, or working with Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch before they founded Improbable. So it was something of a shock when, after the run of ‘TPWIW’ on Broadway, the actor was swept up by Hollywood and cast in ‘Infamous’ as Truman Capote, the famous writer who had a voice that minced as much as his body. In spite of an unfortunate clash with ‘Capote’, which covered much the same territory and came out first, many other parts have followed including Karl Rove in ‘W’ and Swifty Lazar in ‘Frost/Nixon’.

    Theatre has always exploited Jones’s looks. The fact that he’s not much above five foot, has spiky hair and a squashed face that seems to be wider than it is long only added to the laughs in ‘TPWIW’. There will also be laughs, but of a darker kind, in Tom Stoppard’s ‘Every Good Boy Deserves a Favour’, the production that is luring Jones back to the theatre after a five-year gap.

    It was Andre Previn who originally challenged Stoppard to write a play for a symphony orchestra. Inspiration didn’t strike the playwright until, increasingly concerned about human rights in the Soviet bloc, he visited the Soviet Union in 1976, met the Russian dissident Victor Fainberg and became involved in the campaign to get Vladimir Bukovsky released. In ‘Every Good Boy…’, the dissident, Alexander, is sharing a cell in an asylum with the madman Ivanov, whose illness takes the form of imagining that he is conducting an orchestra. In a Catch 22 situation, Alexander will not be released until he admits that he is mad and that sane people are never locked up in asylums.

    Jones plays Ivanov in this rare (not many theatres can afford to put an orchestra on stage), new revival directed by Felix Barrett and Tom Morris. Explaining the unusual nature of the work, Jones says ‘The most concise way of putting it is that Stoppard has written an expressionistic piece and a naturalistic one in the same play. It’s so interesting what Stoppard does because the basis of theatre, especially Shakespeare, is that there are these invisible things on stage that you are going to have to imagine. Whereas here, the audience is put into a state of delusion. It’s made me think so much about delusion as a theatrical device.’

    Madness can be a trap in the theatre and Jones is interested in the idea that Ivanov may not be completely bonkers. ‘It makes it far less interesting if you are playing someone who everyone is absolutely certain is mad all the time. It allows the audience to go, “Great, we don’t need to listen to anything he says.” One of the source texts is Bukovsky’s “To Build a Castle”. My character builds up an orchestra, but Bukovsky built a castle brick by brick in his mind, built a library and invited people into it as a mental refuge from the abuse. In this production it’s clear that Ivanov’s madness isn’t straightforward. Stoppard has even reinserted a tiny bit of the text, which gives you some of Ivanov’s back story.’

    After five years away filming, Jones is struggling to come to terms with the public nature of theatre. ‘I’m used to rehearsing in hotels on my own and finding little strategies and routes through a piece that I will talk to a director about and then deliver on action. Here everyone’s got an opinion about what we are going to do. It’s been a real reminder of how public the process is.

    'Working in film is a massive opportunity to learn a different dramatic language. It’s much closer to working in a studio in BAC than it is to the National. I love doing film and radio. These are things we take for granted as an actor, the chance to work in so many different ways.’ And the writing? Will there be another one-man show? ‘I often have ideas for that but it’s the one thing that’s gone by the wayside. I have to put time aside and get down to it.’

    Every Good Boy Deserves a Favour’ is playing at the National Theatre.

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