Now transferred from the Royal Court to the West End, Tom Stoppard’s intellectually stimulating and surprisingly touching new play covers a lot of ground over its three hours.
Like Michael Frayn, Stoppard seems to be writing his most substantial plays late in his career. Although not as panoramically wide-ranging as his last original stage work, the pre-Revolutionary Russian trilogy The Coast of Utopia in 1998, Rock’n’Roll is still breathtakingly ambitious.
Set between the years of 1968, when Soviet armed forces brutally suppressed Czech liberalization during the ‘Prague Spring’, and 1990, a year after the ‘Velvet Revolution’, when the Communists had been thrown out of government, the play deals with big themes and conflicts such as individual liberty versus state control, idealism versus pragmatism, whether human relationships can be based purely on feelings regardless of economics, the insidious influence of global capitalism and tabloid journalism in the so-called democratic West – not to mention the ability of rock’n’roll to represent and perhaps promote freedom of spirit if not body. Phew!
As so often in the past, Stoppard can be accused of packing in too many ideas and wearing his cleverness on his sleeve. But, characteristically, his treatment is brilliantly entertaining with plenty of good jokes, and, perhaps because the subject is close to his Czech-born heart, there is more intimacy involved than usual. In this production Stoppard renews his long-time collaboration with director Trevor Nunn, who helps to achieve a nice balance between the cerebral and the emotional, the political and the personal.
With revolution of one sort or another in the air, it seems fitting that Robert Jones’s set design should be based on a revolving stage, as we move in between the comfortable, ivy-clad Cambridge house of university lecturer Max and his family and the more modest, brutalist concrete flat of his former PhD student Jan in Prague. In between scenes songs are played by the likes of Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd, with the lyrics loosely relating to what’s happening in the story.
Max is a defiantly uncompromising Marxist of the Old School, who believes “that between theory and practice there’s a decent fit not perfect but decent”. Jan, on the other hand, is more interested in listening to his enormous collection of rock records than in becoming directly involved in politics, but after his favourite underground band, The Plastic People of the Universe, are arrested for ‘subversive activities’, he signs up to Charter 77 with other dissidents demanding basic human rights and comes into direct conflict with the authorities.
There are many layers in the play apart from the main plot outlining the eventual collapse of Communism in the Eastern bloc, such as the complex relationship between materialist Max and his humanist classics-teaching wife Eleanor who is dying of cancer and the tacit love between their hippy daughter Esme and Jan which takes over 20 years to reach fruition. But the two subplots involving Sapphic poetry and the recently deceased Syd Barrett as an anarchic Pan figure over-stretch an already rich tapestry.
Rufus Sewell gives the performance of a lifetime as the reluctant rebel Jan, a gentle scholar who would like to be left alone with his books and records but who is ultimately forced to take sides – as he seems to age physically before our eyes his spirit is saddened but remains movingly unbowed by his suffering. As the bullish Max, Brian Cox suggests that there is more flexibility in his views on politics and people than he would admit to, without sentimentalizing the character.
Sinead Cusack gives wonderfully nuanced interpretations as both the donnish Eleanor and her grown-up daughter Esme who discovers her true love late in life, while Alice Eve doubly impresses as the younger, flower child Esme and then as Esme’s restless but talented daughter Alice.
In this thought-provoking play, Stoppard seems to be suggesting in a subtly optimistic way that even if rock’n’roll can’t change the world, it can change the way we feel about the world, which is a start.