You can be sure Tom Stoppard didn’t call his meaty and marvelous new play
Rock ‘n’ Roll on a whim. As you watch it — and listen to the music and musical dialogue stuffed chockablock into its brimming two acts
— you can almost hear him coming to the realization that the music he obviously loves has had not only a lasting effect on international culture but on global politics as well. The result is a complex if overwritten narrative that intertwines the fortunes of Cambridge-educated Czech journalist Jan (Rufus Sewell) and the family of dyed-in-the-wool English communist Max (Brian Cox) – with his love of Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys.
Stoppard follows his characters from 1968’s Prague Spring to 1990 as much through their evolving destinies as through the albums released during that time — and identified in whirling between-scenes graphics. He leaps between Cambridge and Prague — thanks to Robert Jones’ clever rotating set — as tenacious Max eventually quits the Communist party and considers voting for Margaret Thatcher and Jan goes from believing in the promise of his government’s potential to disillusionment, imprisonment, and eventual liberation. The most powerful symbol of the repression under which he struggles is the sight of Jan’s copious record collection after being destroyed.
The play’s thesis, which Stoppard makes hard to miss, is that through the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, it was music that most successfully embodied psychic if not actual freedom. For him, the most representative group was the Czech-based group The Plastic People of the Universe, at whose concert Jan is arrested. As Stoppard sees it, they laid the strongest foundation for dissent during the early days of Vaclav Havel’s rise to Czech power.
In concentrating on what happens to Jan and to Max, as well as Max’s cancer-stricken wife Eleanor (Sinead Cusack), their daughter Esme (Alice Eve in Act I; Cusack in Act II), and Esme’s daughter Alice (Eve), Stoppard makes a subtler statement — albeit in a stentorian tone that’s the sticking-point of Trevor Nunn’s juicy production. Stoppard maintains that while politics may rage around families and impinge on them, politics alone doesn’t dictate the tenor of family life. It’s the unpredictable make-up of personalities and interactions; it’s unexpected intrusions like cancer; it’s the daily discourse with extended-family members; it’s the cacophonous music of life itself.
When Rock ‘n’ Roll opened at London’s Royal Court in June 2006, it set off a spate of award-grabbing for the cast, with Sewell, Cusack, Eve, Cox, and Nicole Ansari (Cox’s real-life wife, who plays his late-in-life love interest, Lenka) now repeating their duties stateside. Sewell has the most daunting task, since he’s asked not only to portray Jan as he ages and deals with constant accommodation, but to employ a Czech accent whenever he’s meant to be speaking English and a regular accent when supposedly speaking Czech. He makes his memorable turn infinitely more than a stunt and wears his many decade-specific wigs (designed by David H. Lawrence) with conviction.
Cusack also has a wig array as the dying but fiercely fighting Eleanor; she then becomes someone completely antithetical as the grown but still free-spirited Esme. Cox’s Max is a bundle of hot-headed conviction, albeit perhaps too hot-headed in a one-note way. Eve’s 16-year-old Esme and young Alice are both delightful and deliver much of the humor that Stoppard winkingly dispenses throughout a sometimes polemical script. The rest of the largish cast — all of whom are American — hasn’t a weak member in it.
As Stoppard’s fans know, he loves sagas. Those who waded through the playwright’s The Coast of Utopia, last year’s nine-hour epic, will recognize Rock ‘n’ Roll as a companion piece. Just as the novel-like Utopia was his attempt to dramatize events building to the Russian Revolution, Rock ‘n’ Roll is his autumnal view of the waning effects of that ultimately exhausted event.
In that overrated trilogy, Stoppard had the ambition but not the inspired follow-through. Here, however, his personal stake in being a Czech émigré who loves both his adopted and native countries gives him the visceral wherewithal to infuse Rock ‘n’ Roll with the same explosive energy of the music he worships.