Rock 'n' Roll
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 8, 2007
Rock 'n' Roll reminds us of what Broadway can do at its best: an exemplary, no-expenses-spared production of an excellent, sprawling play. Though one would of course be welcome, it's unlikely that another play this thoughtful, intelligent, challenging, and involving will arrive on the Great White Way this season, so if quality drama is what you care about, make plans to see Rock 'n' Roll now.
It takes place in Prague and Cambridge and spans more than 20 years, from the hopeful spring of 1968 through August 1990. The main characters are Jan, who is a Czech student at Cambridge when we first meet him; Max Morrow, a lifelong Communist and one of Jan's professors; and Esme, Max's daughter, whose journey from vaguely idealistic rebellious student in the '60s to unempowered and underachieving single mother in the '80s forms the main arc of the play. Many of the tumultuous events of the period are filtered through these three's consciousnesses, including Gustav Husak's "Normalization" of Czechoslovakia, the rise of Margaret Thatcher, and the fall of Communism. But this is by no means just a history play: author Tom Stoppard explores a number of relationships among these characters and others, such as Max's marriage to a brilliant classics professor named Eleanor, who is suffering from cancer, and his later dalliance with a student, another Czech named Lenka; Esme's marriage to an ambitious journalist, Nigel, and his subsequent marriage to an even more ambitious journalist, Candida; Esme's relationships with her formidable father and her just-as-opinionated daughter, Alice; and Jan's relationships—often long-distance, from Prague—with Max and Esme.
Like all of Stoppard's best plays, Rock 'n' Roll is dense, packed with ideas and allusions too numerous to fully grasp in a single sitting. Most prominent among the subtextual themes is the eponymous music that courses through the play; nearly two dozen songs—from bands like Pink Floyd, Velvet Underground, the Grateful Dead, and the Rolling Stones—punctuate (but do not comment on) the play's scenes during the many transitions.
What I took most from the play was a strong appreciation of the insidious nature of systematized oppression. Jan returns to Prague early in the story and through his eyes we come to understand the surreal hyper-bureaucratic repression tactics of the totalitarian Czech regime—the absurdism of Havel's work is made real and resonant in a few deft scenes, like one where Jan meets up with Nigel at the height of Husak's reign. Jan gives Nigel a recording of a concert by the Plastic People of the Universe, whose work was illegal at that time. Nigel asks Jan what will happen if he's caught with it, and Jan mimes a knife slashing his throat. I was never sure if Jan was serious or kidding; such was the impossible ambiguity of that time, communicated so economically by Stoppard.
But such an example is necessarily trivial and reductive—this play is so full of information, and emotion, and profundity, that I'm finding it difficult to encapsulate.
Under Trevor Nunn's tight, efficient, careful direction, a cast of 13 brings the panoramic tale to life beautifully. Rufus Sewell's moving, deeply-felt portrayal of Jan is the standout performance to my mind, which is not to slight the excellent work of luminous Sinead Cusack as Eleanor in Act I and middle-aged Esme in Act II. Brian Cox is tough and unyielding as Max. Brian Avers (as Stephen, Alice's articulate boyfriend), Stephen Kunken (as Ferdinand, a close friend of Jan's in Prague), Nicole Ansari (as the strangely contradictory Lenka), and Alice Eve (as young Esme and Alice) also deliver particularly memorable characterizations.
The production is magnificent, with Robert Jones's deceptively simple sets anchoring the story neatly, and Emma Ryott's many costume designs capturing each of the play's divergent periods. Howard Harrison's lighting and Ian Dickinson's sound complete the environment.
It all makes for an intense and riveting theatrical experience, one that resonates long after the play ends and that fuels plenty of conversation and discussion—about the big ideas in the play, sure, but perhaps even more about the history we lived through and the history—in Cambridge, in Prague, and elsewhere—that we may have missed.