Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 4, 2007
Rock 'n' Roll A new play by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Trevor Nunn. Set Designer Robert Jones. Costume Designer Emma Ryott. Lighting Designer Howard Harrison. Sound Designer Ian Dickinson. Cast: Brian Cox, Sinead Cusack, Rufus Sewell, Nicole Ansari, Brian Avers, Mary Bacon, Alice Eve, Seth Fisher, Stephen Kunken, Quentin Maré, Ken Marks, Alexandra Neil, Anna O’Donoghue, Joseph Collins, Angela Reed, Joe Vincent.
This combination of one of our most erudite playwrights with the most invigorating bands of the last four decades of the 20th century keeps Stoppard’s latest play, Rock ‘n’ Roll, up and pounding when it seems like it would rather lie down for a nap. The Royal Court Theatre London production, which just opened at the Bernard B. Jacobs under Trevor Nunn’s direction, is a swiveling circle forever in danger of becoming square, but always stopping just short of utter angularity.
This is both a disappointment and a relief. Last season’s monumental Stoppard outing, The Coast of Utopia, instead had all the kinetic energy of a buzz saw spinning off its axis, which Rock ‘n’ Roll at its best does not. But in examining subjects very similar to Utopia’s from a vantage point much closer to our own - and being strewn with those jolting tunes between scenes - this play might prove more accessible to many than that one did. (Its running time of three hours, as opposed to nine, can’t hurt either.)
Rock ‘n’ Roll takes as its central concern the disintegration of Communism in Eastern Europe, dividing its time between the front lines in Czechoslovakia and the safe haven of Britain. The story of Jan (Rufus Sewell), a Czech student at Cambridge drawn to return to his homeland in the wake of its late-60s political upheaval, contrasts with that of his professor and friend Max (Brian Cox), a confirmed Communist whose protests in favor of the system stand in stark contrast to the global move away from it in the waning years of the millennium. Their savage-breasted ideological drift, however, is tempered by music, the soothing qualities of which, Stoppard argues, effect change in their own unexpected ways.
Sometimes these manifest themselves openly, as in the case of the defiant Czech band The Plastic People of the Universe, with which Jan’s fortunes become inextricably tangled, the very existence of which was an ongoing political statement as piercing as any bullet. More often, however, they appear in more spiritual forms, ranging from the guidepost appearances of Pink Floyd front man Syd Barrett to the protean wisdom of lyric poet Sappho and especially the punctuating piping of the mythological Pan, who fixes for Max’s wife Eleanor and daughter Esme a life force sturdier than the body itself.
As for the more active participants, Cox makes Max - not incidentally, born the month of the Russian Bolshevik takeover in 1917 - a dynamic discontent with a deceptively disarming softer side, while Sewell errs on the cold side as Jan but nonetheless makes him a complex and compelling leader through three of the most turbulent and important decades of recent human history. Both actors deftly embody the volatility of the time, demonstrating how the old regime so often unwillingly gives way to the new.
So there’s no lack of scope or richness in Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the fine actors - who also include Nicole Ansari as Lenka, Eleanor’s student and Max’s eventual lover, and Ferdinand, a violent influence on Jan’s evolving thought - supply plenty of pulse. Nunn’s own inspiration is evident in his wave-cresting staging and refreshing reliance on the most intimate of theatrical close-ups to communicate the biggest ideas. (Robert Jones’s revolving set, which cunningly shifts between the golden fantasy of the U.K. and the dark reality of Prague, is based on similar precepts.)
But what is missing is a more exact mining of the revolutionary spirit. The Coast of Utopia thrilled because the roiling sextet at its core were themselves the ones shaking up Russia and Europe in the 1800s, which gave the aftershocks in their wake a power and poignancy usually lacking here. With only a few glancing exceptions, those we follow in Rock ‘n’ Roll are not on the frontlines - like most everyone else, they're stumbling through the aftermath, trying to make sense of what's happening around them.
The real story belongs to The Plastic People and the popular revolt they led, and to Václav Havel, the Czech dissident and president who was crucial in eradicating Communism and forming the Czech Republic near the start of the 1990s. Their lives and actions occasionally collide with those of Jan, Max, and those surrounding them, and Rock ‘n’ Roll is never better than at those intersections. The rest of the time, the strong fascination it exerts emanates more from those on the periphery working to create a contemporary Utopia than from those who are waiting for others to complete the project.