Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll in 2006
“Everything’s dissident except shutting up and eating shit.”
Tom Stoppard’s new play Rock’n’Roll is a play about political systems in the East and the West. It looks at 1968 to 1990 in Prague, Czechoslovakia through the eyes of a writer, and in Cambridge, England through those of a Marxist academic, a lecturer in philosophy.
A Czech popular music group, The Plastic People of the Universe, symbolise freedom and their suppression illustrates the suppression of popular culture and political freedom. In Cambridge, the life and music of Syd Barrett, a talented songwriter and founding member of Pink Floyd until drugs messed up his mind, take on a symbolism of their own as he represents Pan, the god of music.
While the Czech writer Vaclav Havel is the obvious role model for Stoppard’s Czech writer Jan (Rufus Sewell). There is also an autobiographical element, a wondering of what would have happened to Stoppard if he had had to practise his writer’s craft in Czecholslovakia.
The play opens in Cambridge in 1968 where Max (Brian Cox) lectures in philosophy and is a member of the Communist Party. He lives with his classicist wife, Eleanor (Sinead Cusack) an expert on the poetry of Sappho who has had a mastectomy, and their hippie teenage daughter Esme (Alice Eve).
Hardliner Max is upbraiding visiting Czech PhD student Jan (Rufus Sewell) for his support of the Dubcek regime in Czechoslovakia which is attempting to break away from the Warsaw Pact. Ten years later, in Prague, Jan has been made to work in the kitchens of the newspaper he once wrote for and his collection of rock ‘n’ roll records has been smashed by the secret police. He has become a dissident, not through political idealism but by passively being caught up in events.
In England, Max, who is “as old as the October revolution” (which means he was born in 1917), has resigned from the Communist Party. Act Two starts in 1987 twenty years after the play’s inception, with Esme (Sinead Cusack again ) and her daughter Alice (Alice Eve) and a re-union between Max and Jan. The play ends with The Rolling Stones playing live in Prague.
With Trevor Nunn directing a very accomplished cast, Rock’n’Roll could not fail to please but there seems to be more heart searching and less of that sparkling Stoppardian wit that we have come to expect from one of our best living playwrights. Robert Jones’ revolving set switches from Cambridge garden to Prague flat but is unremarkable. Each scene is punctuated with a rock classic of that era, a date and the credits and the finale is memorable as we see strong black and white photographic images of The Rolling Stones as gnarled old rock gods.
Rufus Sewell is compelling as Jan. His hair varies from flowing curls of freedom to the short haircut of a man curtailed and proscribed. His accent is subtly tinged with Czech in the English scenes, but in Prague there is no accent when he speaks his native language. Brian Cox too is a powerhouse of polemic as he guards his uncompromising idealism against rational argument. The funniest scene is when he contemplates voting for Maggie Thatcher to wake up the English working class to their lack of political awareness. Sinead Cusack has two contrasting roles — the angry cancer struck woman don and two decades later, her own daughter. Each is moving in its own way. As the expert on Sapphic poetry she addresses the play’s sub theme, the nature of love.
There is an unexpected laugh when the audience picks up on Candida’s (Louise Bangay) experience of student politics at Hornsey College of Art in 1968. The audience are laughing because they think it is a trivial recall but those of us who know about 1968 know that the Hornsey student occupation was second only to the London School of Economics in its political importance.
Though this new play too rarely sparkles with the inventive wit we associate with Stoppard’s writing, it may be his most personal as it explores his political philosophy. Aside from the politics, it is a play about love, relationships and friendship and about the continuity of these and a classical education.
Rock ‘n’ Roll
Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Director: Trevor Nunn
Set Designer: Robert Jones
Lighting Designer: Howard Harrison
Costume Design: Emma Ryott
Sound Design: Ian Dickinson
Running Time: Three hours 10 minutes including an interval
Closed 25th February 2007
Originally produced at the Royal Court Theatre
Duke of York’s Theatre
104 St Martin’s Lane
London WC2N 4BG
Phone: 03330 096 690
Tube: Charing Cross
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge at the
Duke of York’s
on 27th July 2006