Direction: Trevor Nunn
Cast includes: Nicole Ansari, Louise Bangay, Anthony Calf, Martin Chamberlain, Miranda Colchester, Brian Cox, Sinead Cusack, Alice Eve, Edward Hogg, Rufus Sewell and Peter Sullivan.
Design: Robert Jones
Costume Design: Emma Ryott
Lighting: Howard Harrison
Sound: Ian Dickinson
_Rock ‘n’ Roll _spans the years from 1968 to 1990 from the double perspective of Prague, where a rock ‘n’ roll band comes to symbolise resistance to the Communist regime, and of Cambridge where the verities of love and death are shaping the lives of three generations in the family of a Marxist philosopher.
Recent work by Tom Stoppard includes THE COAST OF UTOPIA, THE INVENTION OF LOVE, ARCADIA, HAPGOOD (Aldwych Theatre), THE REAL THING (Strand Theatre), NIGHT AND DAY, TRAVESTIES (RSC), JUMPERS (National Theatre), AFTER MAGRITTE and THE REAL INSPECTOR HOUND. The first of his plays to be staged was ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD.
_“I have never left a new play more convinced that I just witnessed a masterpiece.” _Daily Telegraph [ARCADIA]
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Dates in June
|Sat 3 Jun 2006||12:00am||Jerwood Theatre Downstairs|
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Rock Music and romanticism clash culturally with Panache
Paul Taylor, Independent, 15 June 2006
At what cultural event could you have seen, among the punters, Vaclav Havel and Mick Jagger, Timothy Garton Ash and Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd?
Answer: at the press night of Rock’n‘Roll, Tom Stoppard’s complex and moving new play about the link between rock music, East European dissidence and the fall of Communism.
Initially weird-seeming juxtapositions in the audience (including the endearingly absurd sight of Havel seated, thanks to a quirk of the ticketing, next to “Acid” Raine Spencer) are, of course, given the author, matched by strange but ultimately rewarding collocations in the piece which draws together such topics as Sappho and Syd Barrett, brain science and spiteful junk journalism.
Stoppard is famously distrustful of faith in Utopias (his last work was a nine-hour trilogy on the subject). The new play is about the danger of closed systems and of thinking that you have broken free and rescued what is human when all that you have done is replace one bad system with another.
Accordingly, the (offstage) heroes of the play – which shuttles between Prague and Cambridge during the period from the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to the Velvet Revolution – are the real-life psychedelic Czech band, the Plastic People of the Universe.
In the scenes set in Prague, we’re privy to disputes between two friends who represent conflicting views about dissent in the underground opposition to the hardline Husak regime that replaced Dubcek and his “socialism with a human face”.
Ferda (Peter Sullivan) is inclined to dismiss the Plastics as long-haired layabouts who aren’t engaged in what matters. That’s not the opinion of Jan, the character who (played by the electrically brilliant Rufus Sewell) is like the author’s speculative alter-ego, the man Stoppard might have been, had his family returned after the Second World War to Czechoslovakia and ended up living under Communism.
Jan realises that the Plastics rattle the authorities more effectively than the intellectuals by their superb indifference. Policemen love and depend on dissidents for their meaning just as an Inquisition needs them. The Plastic People threw away the board on which this kind of game is played and, to the government’s astonishment, their trial in 1976 sparked the protest that led to Charter 77.
Rock music matters deeply to the play and to Trevor Nunn’s occasionally over-emphatic production which, between scenes, is punctuated by ironically placed excerpts of the Plastics, Pink Floyd, the Stones et al. In Cambridge and on visits to Prague, Jan’s former tutor, Max Morrow, a fiery unrepentant Marxist played by a miscast Brian Cox, bites the head off anyone who casts doubt on the spirit of the October Revolution of 1917.
Sinead Cusack is powerful as Max’s cancer-stricken wife who, in her ravaged state, disputes his materialist philosophy of consciousness. And in the second half, she’s terribly touching as Esme, his flower-power-child drop-out who, now grown up and the mother of a brilliant daughter of her own, is struggling to find a role.
Some of the intellectual debates have a rather rigged ring and Max feels throughout like a convenient amalgam of different types of academic. I preferred the parts where Stoppard the Romantic asserts himself in ways that are less easy to paraphrase.
It remains an impressive play, likely to expand in the mind. 5 stars Jane Edwards, June 19, Time Out
Its a long time since anyone seriously thought that rock ‘n’ roll could change the world, and yet in his wonderful new play, Tom Stoppard tantalisingly engages with the idea that the restoration of democracy in Czechoslovakia in the 90’s can be traced back to concerts by the non-political Plastic People of the Universe in the 70’s as much as to the efforts of dissidents like Vaclav Havel. And there was Reagan thinking he was responsible for the collapse of the iron curtain.
Between the years of 1968 and 1990, the fortunes of a communist Cambridge professor, Max, and his family are contrasted with those of Max’s former pupil, Jan (Rufus Sewell at his most fascinating), who idiosyncratically returns to Czechoslovakia just as the Soviet tanks are rolling in. An academic with a passion for rock, he becomes a reluctant dissident when the authorities attack his favourite band.
As Jan endures the realities of life under communism, Brian Cox’s Max clings in Cambridge to the theory, threatening to punch the nose of anyone who wonders why he has stayed in the party. It’s a tribute to Stoppard’s writing and Cox’s bruising performance that Max makes the case for Marxism and materialism so convincingly.
As the characters age over 32 years, the wig department is kept busy. Initially the pace is pedestrian, repetitively switching between Prague and Cambridge, but in the second act, Trevor Nunn’s production blazes to life. Sinead Cusack, who plays Max’s wife in the first act, and their ageing hippy daughter in the second, is intensely moving as the latter, struggling to hold her own in a family of academics.
By the end, Czechoslovakia is celebrating with the Rolling Stones while England has become a ‘democracy of obedience’. In exploring the life he might have led if he had returned as a child to Czechoslovakia, Stoppard provides a challenging account of our times in a play that is typically dense, laced, of course, with plenty of fine jokes and some excellent music. 5 stars Michael Coveney, Whatsonstage,15 June 2006
No one writes argument, information and good jokes all at once and as well as does Tom Stoppard, and his enthralling, sensational new play, Rock ‘n’ Roll at the Royal Court is the most moving and autobiographical of his career.
Travelling between Cambridge in 1968 and Prague in 1990, the subject is what happened, bounded by those dates, in Stoppard’s native country of Czechoslovakia: the Soviet invasion, the dissident resistance of Charter 77 and the Plastic People of the Universe rock group, and finally the Velvet Revolution.
The leading figure in this saga, Vaclav Havel, to whom the play is dedicated, sat among the first night audience, a few seats from the author and next to, bizarrely, Raine Spencer, the step-mother of the late Princess Diana. Kenneth Tynan, in a famous essay, once said that Havel was Stoppard’s mirror image.
The plays leading character, Jan, a Czech philosopher at Cambridge the name stirs echoes of the philosopher Jan Patocka and the student martyr Jan Palach who loves the Rolling Stones and the Velvet Underground, returns home and is gradually drawn into the political maelstrom.
Its as though Stoppard is imagining a version of himself in a reverse scenario of his own emigration to England, investing Jan with his own educated diffidence. In Cambridge, hes at odds with the uncompromising left-wing don Max Morrow, who expresses the dilemma of being a good Marxist in a discredited political system.
The British perspective widens to include flower power the play starts with the Pan-like figure of Syd Barrett, the lost dark angel of Pink Floyd, serenading Max’s daughter; and feminism Maxs wife, Eleanor, is tutoring in Sapphic poetry while dying of cancer.
One of the masterstrokes is to have the same actress the translucent Sinead Cusack play both Eleanor and the grown-up daughter, Esme. While the socialism with a human face of Alexander Dubcek (a nice guy but,basically, Cliff Richard says Jan) is replaced by the repressive Husak regime, Mrs Thatcher comes to power in Britain with 37 percent of the popular vote. The increasingly rancid tone of public life is summed up at a dinner party where a former radical journalist (My boyfriend was a Black Dwarf cartoonist) is assaulted for writing an intrusive tabloid article about Syd Barrett.
Trevor Nunn has presented this fascinating, intelligent and engaging play in one of his very best productions, brilliantly designed by Robert Jones, covering the scene changes with blasts of the greatest rock music of the era Dylan, the Stones, the Velvets, Pink Floyd that express meaning beyond words, the dream of liberation in music that both Jan and indeed Havel believe in.
The casting is impeccable. Rufus Sewell is a husky-voiced, sympathetic figure of increasing involvement, while Brian Cox is simply majestic as the voice of the old left whose integrity is left intact for once. Alice Eve as the daughter and Nicole Ansari as a feminist flame-carrier for a pessimistic diagnosis of British society are both outstanding. Anthony Calf and Peter Sullivan, in a bewildering (but never naff) succession of hairstyles, suggest figures of British condescension and Czech resilience.
Ironically, given the puritan disdain in some quarters for the arrival of Stoppard and Nunn, Cavaliers both, in Sloane Square, Rock ‘n’ Roll is easily the best political and most grown-up play at the Royal Court in living memory. I can hardly wait to read the text and see it again at the earliest opportunity.
- * * *
Michael Billington, Sunday Times, 18 June 2006
ITS EASY to forget that Tom Stoppard was born Czechoslovakian, partly because he uses the English language with matchless bravura, partly because he has written just one television play, Professional Foul, about his native country. So what gives his new Rock ‘n’ Roll special interest is that its a thoroughgoing reminder of his origins. Part of the play is set in Cambridge, but the best of it in Prague between the overthrow of Dubcek in 1968 and the aftermath of the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
The protagonist is Jan, a young academic sent to Britain to snoop for Czechoslovakia but too much of a maverick and too little the communist to please the spymasters. Back home he keeps his head down and indulges his passion, which is listening to his rock n roll records, but his avid support of a group, improbably called The Plastic People of the Universe, lands him in dead-end jobs and in prison as a ‘parasite’. And its a journey that brings a superb performance from Rufus Sewell: now spry, now frantic, now defeated, then quietly, movingly resilient and always the heart of Stoppard’s fascinating play and Trevor Nunn’s finely acted production.
Whats the point? That will keep real-life academics busy for years, but, for me, its mainly to be found in rock n roll itself. We hear snatches of songs from groups ranging from the Pink Floyd to U2, the Doors to the Stones and Mick Jagger, who last night sat beaming in the central stalls.
We think that Czechoslovakia changed because of the efforts of Vaclav Havel and the likes of Jans earnest friend, Peter Sullivans Ferdy, and so it did. But lets not forget rock ‘n’ roll, a demotic, apolitical form that infuriated the cops, inspirited the young and showed the chasm between leaders and led.
Elsewhere, too, Stoppard seems to be decrying reason and exalting the passions. Hence his seemingly irrelevant invocations both of the great god Pan and of the first poet to celebrate erotic desire, Sappho.
And hence the play’s sub-plot or co-plot, which involves Brian Cox as a Cambridge communist who clings to marxism like a barnacle to a rusting ship and Sinead Cusack as his cancer-ridden wife, who finds his materalistic, mechanistic views a cruel insult to herself, human mystery and the worlds complexity.
Towards the end, the play itself seems over-complex and over-busy (please tell me why must we bother with the emotional intricacies of Cox’s granddaughter and the rest of his family?). But never mind. Cusack’s fervent plea still rings round my head: ‘I am not your amazing biological machine. I am not my body. My body is nothing without me.’ It could be Sir Tom himself speaking. For him, its the spirit of a person, of a person that truly counts and in Rock ‘n’ Roll, the soul of a nation that matters too.