culture wars logo archive about us links contactcurrent
about us



Rock 'n' Roll
Royal Court, London

Andrew Haydon
posted 6 July 2006

Things have come to a pretty pass when premier home of Britain's enfant terrible playwrights chooses to celebrate its 50th anniversary with the new play by Britain's most successful, septuagenarian comfortable playwright Tom Stoppard. As it turns out, Rock 'n' Roll is almost as perfect a state-of-the-nation play as one is likely to see this year, with its opening at the Royal Court simply reinforcing its revolutionary credentials.

At first glance it might seem odd to suggest that the state of Britain today is best explained by a play which ostensibly deals with Czech history from 1967 to 1990 from the twin viewpoints of a Marxist Cambridge don and his Czech student Jan. But since the collapse of the Iron Curtain and later the advent of New Labour, the dominant question of British political theatre seems to have been: 'What the hell are we meant to do now?' That this question is addressed by Britain's leading (only?) right-wing playwright (a misnomer, but one that sticks) in the country's most notably Leftist theatre is an intriguing addition to the debate.

The basic plot of Rock 'n' Roll is a simple one - Jan, a Czech student at Cambridge University under Max Morrow, a leading Marxist philosopher, returns to Czechoslovakia during the Velvet Revolution of 1968. The first half of the play follows his increasing disillusionment with Czech communism, which he imagines as Czechs being 'in charge of creating socialism with a human face'. Until, repeatedly disabused of his faith in the system by a secret police which cracks down pointlessly on his beloved rock bands and pop music, he is driven into the arms of the Charter 77 movement. Added to this, Stoppard offers the domestic travails of Prof. Morrow, whose Classics Tutor wife develops a handily allusive case of breast cancer (occasioning pat witticisms on the subject of the Amazons of classical myth - 'Mazos, a breast; Amazos, breastless.'), and whose young daughter runs off to join a commune and becomes pregnant.

The cast is absolutely first rate - aside from the execrable Alice Eve. Rufus Sewell is a revelation as Jan. Everything in his portrayal is spot on, whilst managing the neat trick of switching between two accents - standard English when with other Czechs and a flawless Czech accent when n England. This is less the case with Brian Cox whose roots as a Shakespearean actor tend to peep through as he flavours some of his longer speeches with that school of RSC Volume Control which LETS YOU KNOW IT'S IMPORTANT BECAUSE IT'S SUDDENLY VERY LOUD. Sinead Cusack is, of course, brilliant. Twice, both as Morrow's wife, and later as his grown-up daughter. Also excellent, is Peter Sullivan as Jan's best friend Ferdinand. It's one of those performances-as-a-best-friend which tend not to get reviewed, but here the level of detail; the characterisation of a slightly earnest, nerdy student through to a deadly serious, imprisoned dissident, deserves proper recognition.

After the first couple of scenes, which take a while to warm up, this first half is about as exciting a time in a theatre as you are likely to spend this year. The short scenes zip along at pretty pace, intercut with deliberately lengthy blackouts over which music by the Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground and Pink Floyd - as well as cover versions of the same songs by seminal Czech rock'n'roll outfit The Plastic People of the Universe - are played at a volume loud enough to make the audience sit up and take notice. This isn't recorded music as polite scene-change filler - this is loud, rebellious music being played at its correct volume, and the effect is, rightly, electrifying. In the case of Rock 'n' Roll, recorded music is the point. In one of the later scenes from act one, Jan returns to his flat to discover that his entire record collection has been smashed to pieces by the secret police; his devastation is palpable.

While Stoppard's mistrust of ideological beliefs is made abundantly clear, his Marxist professor is a thoroughly credible creation. Just as David Hare has been accused in the past of giving his villains all the best arguments, Stoppard has written a man who is completely understandable in his passions and beliefs, whose tragic flaw is his willingness to overlook the abuses of his beloved ideology with his belief in its ultimately greater benefits. That Stoppard patently doesn't think Communism can work, and his character Professor Max Morrow thinks it can, doesn't stop him from making the case brilliantly.

It is characteristic of Stoppard's own political agenda that he chooses to tell the story of a nation through a set of individual human stories. And while in the first half this creates a brilliant race through the events of 1967-77, in the second half it proves his undoing as the play fast-forwards to 1988 and centres around a dinner party being held in Cambridge as Max Morrow's daughter's ex-husband brings his new wife round to the house for lunch, and the march of history is replaced with well-heeled, if fractious, chat about politics. This being Stoppard, it is, of course, very funny, very clever dinner-time chatter, but following the first half it appears pale by comparison. The play edges gradually towards the kind of satisfactory resolutions not often seen in the theatre any more, with the various characters being edged into happy relationships in which to play out their twilight years. The ending is an almost bullish assertion of the primacy of individual happiness and the joy that the downfall of Communism in Eastern Europe has occasioned. In the hands of a lesser playwright this conclusion would be so cloying as to be unpalatable. As it is, it triggers the requisite warm glow, with only a nagging feeling that more could have been done given such a flying start. The eventual dénouement/s keep coming for five minutes longer than necessary, with one touching closing vignette following hard upon another touching closing vignette like Prospero's interminable list of resolutions at the end of The Tempest.

Till 15 July 2006, transferring to the Duke of York's Theatre from July 22.


All articles on this site Culture Wars.