For many of us, 1968 means only one thing: Soviet tanks rolling through the streets of Prague. Rock ‘n’ Roll, Tom Stoppard’s latest play, identifies another significant event with that year—the formation of The Plastic People of the Universe, the underground (by necessity) Czech rock band that would become a symbol of Communist oppression when arrested and imprisoned in 1976 (background info from Stoppard here). Spanning decades from the bleak days of Husák's hard-line regime to the heady promise of the Velvet Revolution, Rock ‘n’ Roll tells the Plastics’ story obliquely, through the eyes of an average Czech rock fan and his English friends.
Music and freedom are intertwined in Rock ‘n’ Roll, but the political implications of rock are initially lost on Jan, a young philosophy student and record collector who voluntarily returns to Czechoslovakia after the Soviet invasion, having studied in England with a prominent British Marxist professor, Max Morris. Though not political, Jan’s love for the music of the Plastics and other western bands forces him into a dissident’s life.
The first act moves through the years in a rapid-fire succession of scenes, as Jan is increasingly harassed by the state and reluctantly pushed into pro-democracy activism. Any record collector’s stomach would turn at the sight of Jan’s record collection smashed by the secret police. All the while, Morris remains faithful to his ideology, despite the evidence he sees with his own eyes when he visits Jan in Prague during a Marxist academic conference. He is a hard-case—after all, he weathered 1956 with his faith in tact.
After thoroughly damning Morris in the first act, Stoppard largely lets him off the hook in the second act. Morris is now a widower living with his daughter Esme and granddaughter Alice, both of whom have sentimental attachments to their neighbor, the reclusive former Floyd band-member Syd Barrett. The scenes are longer, but frankly, it is harder to care about the Morris family dramas. However, when Jan comes for a visit, things pick up steam, as Stoppard challenges preconceived notions of collaboration, emphasizing the difficulty of making moral judgments under an oppressive government.
Stoppard is often knocked for the intellectualism of his plays and characters who talk in academic jargon. Morris would be a prime example of this, a man who needs to exist on a philosophical level to disconnect from uncomfortable realities. However, in a tough, challenging scene, his cancer-stricken wife Eleanor calls him out, demanding he respond to her on an emotional level, with ambiguous results.
As Jan, Rufus Sewell is pitch-perfect. It was not just the accent and mannerisms, but something indefinable in his performance was totally Czech. He actually reminded me of Czechs I have met. As Morris, Brian Cox blusters and bellows, chewing up scenery and dialogue with gusto. In a dual role, Sinead Cusack turns in some of the play’s most electric moments as Eleanor, but her grown Esme comes across a bit milk-toast.
Sewell’s Jan though is the heart of the play. Not really an intellectual because he never finished his degree, and not really a dissident because he was never political, Jan is simply a rock ‘n’ roll fan. However, that in itself was political in Communist Czechoslovakia. He was just one of many dreamers who never had chance under a corrupt system of government. In a telling exchange late in the second act, Jan contemplates immigrating to England, but a former Czech countryman tells him words to the effect of: “you finally have a chance to rebuild your own country, why leave now for an England that only apologizes for itself now.”
Stoppard, born in Czechoslovakia, British by way of Singapore, had often spoken out on human rights concerns behind the Iron Curtain, particularly in his collaboration with André Previn, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, and his television film, Professional Foul. Here his words crackle with meaning, deftly integrating Czech history into his story and wrapping things up nicely with a perfectly fitting conclusion.
Veteran stage and film director Trevor Nunn keeps the pacing brisk. Rock ‘n’ Roll is effectively staged, particularly in its use of classic rock songs to introduce each individual scene, like U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” an arresting preface to the second act, particularly in light of what preceded. Ultimately that is what Rock ‘n’ Roll the play is about—the power of music. After runs in London and Prague’s National Theater, Rock ‘n’ Roll opened last night on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, and it well worth seeing, provided the stagehands don’t strike.
(Note: this review is based on a preview performance, coincidentally on the night before I left for Prague.)