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A CurtainUp Review

Rock'n'Roll On Broadway

Rufus Sewell  in Rock 'n' Roll
Rufus Sewell in Rock 'n' Roll (Photo: Joan Marcus)
The London hit by Tom Stoppard, the contemporary theater's intellectual darling, has opened at the Bernard Jacobs Theater. All the original stars and several of the support players have come along with director Trevor Nunn, as have the designers. Since Lizzie Loveridge very ably summed up the details and implications of the pivotal characters' decades long journey through life and history, I'll limit these comments to my own reaction to the play and the players, and refer you to the London review which appears below the current production notes.

Like Lizzie I found this to be "a sure to please production" —and then some. Despite some rather talky scenes in the first act, I thought it supremely satisfying, superlatively dramatic in terms of content, structure and characters. Though I'm not a great rock and roll fan I found the musical punctuation that drove the plot forward brilliant and actually liked the music enough to plan on getting some Pink Floyd CDs so that I can listen to more than a few brief riffs.

Like Coast of Utopia, this is a fascinating exploration of a historic era and its effect on the personal and public lives of passionate, thinking people. The two leading characters— Max (Brian Cox), the Cambridge professor and diehard Communist and Jan (Rufus Sewell), the young Czech he takes under his wing— are fictional creations not real historic figures. However, the real people they bring to mind add to their fascinating complexity (especially the Sewell character who suggests both Vaclav Havel and Stoppard as he might have been had he, like Jan, returned to the land of his birth during a repressive period).

Rock 'n' Roll is less of an epic, name dropping event for theater goers than the Coast of Utopia trilogy was, but it's also more accessible (if you arrive a bit early, reading the informative program insert is all you need to bring you up-to-date on the historic background). The play is also, as Lizzie puts it, "more heart searching" than usual for Stoppard. Who cannot be moved to tears by Sinead Cusack's devastating outcry in her role as the cancer stricken Eleanor in Act One? Who will not feel a chill up the spine when Rufus Sewell's Jan upon his return to Czechoslovakia meets with a hostile interrogator (Quentin Maré) who doesn't need physical torture tools to force Jan to eat a biscuit he doesn't want? And who can fail to be moved quite differently when Jan declares his love for Eleanor's daughter Esme (Cusack again), or feel a sense of jump-out-of-one's seat exultation at the terrific rock concert finale?

I part company with Lizzie on just two points. I don't think that the heart searching comes at the expense of the sparkling wit we expect from this playwright. Both acts, and especially the second one, are alive with witticisms (for example, Max dismissing Jan's labelling him "a reform Communist" with "like a nun who gives blow-jobs is a reform nun") and word play (as when Max asks to sit in on one of Eleanor's tutorials as a mere "fly on the wall" and she counters with "in the ointment, more like").

As for Robert Jones' revolving set, maybe it just fits this theater better than it did the London venue, but it struck me as an ideal way to move back and forth between the scenes in Cambridge and Prague. The half turns and full turns vary the sense of space— with the turns that close in on Jan's tight living quarters emphasizing his claustrophic life, while the half-way turns open up the playing area to reveal two rooms or a room and a garden. The changing view and colors of the area outside these revolving interiors subtly evokes the shifting moods from scene to scene and the golden leafed tree overarching a dinner near the end of the play evokes Chekhov whose characters, like Stoppard's, survive season after season of changing fortunes and trees shedding their leaves and reblossoming.

As for the performances, I'd be amazed if Sewell, Cusack and Cox don't end up being prime contenders for Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle acting awards. The American additions to the cast, especially Stephen Kunken as Jan's friend Ferdinand, add to the excellence of the British ensemble.

And so, this is a play that sends you out of the theater with plenty of food for thought, a happy ending, and the sound of the well-chosen rock and roll tunes still pulsating through you. . .who could ask for anything more?

For more about Stoppard and links to other reviews of his plays, see our Tom Stoppard Backgrounder Broadway Production Notes
ROCK ' N'ROLL By Tom Stoppard
Cast: (*=new to Broadway actors) Brian Cox (Max), Sinead Cusack (Eleanor/Older Esme), Rufus Sewell (Jan), Nicole Ansari (Lenka), *Brian Avers (Stephen), *Mary Bacon (Gillian/Magda), Alice Eve (Young Esme/Alice), *Seth Fisher (the Piper/Policeman), *Stephen Kunken (Ferdinand), *Quentin Maré (Interrogator/Nigel), *Ken Marks (Milan/Waiter), *Alexandra Neil (Candida) and *Anna O'Donoghue (Pupil).
sets by Robert Jones
Costumes by Emma Ryott
Lighting by Howard Harrison
Sound by Ian Dickinson
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes, with intermission
Royal Court Theater London production presented by Bob Boyett, Sonia Friedman Productions, Ostar Productions, Roger Berlind, Tulchin/Bartner, Douglas G. Smith, Dancap Productions, Jam Theatricals and the Weinstein Company, in association with Lincoln Center Theater at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, 242 West 45th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200
. From From 10/19/07; opening 11/03/07; closing 3/02/08

Review of the London production by Lizzie Loveridge

Everything's dissident except shutting up and eating shit.
---- Jan

Tom Stoppard's new play Rock'n'Roll is a play about political systems in the East and the West. It looks at 1968 to 1990 in Prague, Czechoslovakia through the eyes of a writer, and in Cambridge, England through those of a Marxist academic, a lecturer in philosophy. A Czech popular music group, The Plastic People of the Universe, symbolise freedom and their suppression illustrates the suppression of popular culture and political freedom. In Cambridge, the life and music of Syd Barrett, a talented songwriter and founding member of Pink Floyd until drugs messed up his mind, take on a symbolism of their own as he represents Pan, the god of music.

While the Czech writer Vaclav Havel is the obvious role model for Stoppard's Czech writer Jan (Rufus Sewell). There is also an autobiographical element, a wondering of what would have happened to Stoppard if he had had to practise his writer's craft in Czecholslovakia.

The play opens in Cambridge in 1968 where Max (Brian Cox) lectures in philosophy and is a member of the Communist Party. He lives with his classicist wife, Eleanor (Sinead Cusack) an expert on the poetry of Sappho who has had a mastectomy, and their hippie teenage daughter Esme (Alice Eve). Hardliner Max is upbraiding visiting Czech PhD student Jan (Rufus Sewell) for his support of the Dubcek regime in Czechoslovakia which is attempting to break away from the Warsaw Pact. Ten years later, in Prague, Jan has been made to work in the kitchens of the newspaper he once wrote for and his collection of rock 'n' roll records has been smashed by the secret police. He has become a dissident, not through political idealism but by passively being caught up in events. In England, Max, who is "as old as the October revolution" (which means he was born in 1917), has resigned from the Communist Party. Act Two starts in 1987 twenty years after the play's inception, with Esme (Sinead Cusack again ) and her daughter Alice (Alice Eve) and a re-union between Max and Jan. The play ends with The Rolling Stones playing live in Prague.

With Trevor Nunn directing a very accomplished cast, Rock'n'Roll could not fail to please but there seems to be more heart searching and less of that sparkling Stoppardian wit that we have come to expect from one of our best living playwrights. Robert Jones revolving set switches from Cambridge garden to Prague flat but is unremarkable. Each scene is punctuated with a rock classic of that era, a date and the credits and the finale is memorable as we see strong black and white photographic images of The Rolling Stones as gnarled old rock gods.

Rufus Sewell is compelling as Jan. His hair varies from flowing curls of freedom to the short haircut of a man curtailed and proscribed. His accent is subtly tinged with Czech in the English scenes, but in Prague there is no accent when he speaks his native language. Brian Cox too is a powerhouse of polemic as he guards his uncompromising idealism against rational argument. The funniest scene is when he contemplates voting for Maggie Thatcher to wake up the English working class to their lack of political awareness. Sinead Cusack has two contrasting roles -- the angry cancer struck woman don and two decades later, her own daughter. Each is moving in its own way. As the expert on Sapphic poetry she addresses the play's sub theme, the nature of love.

There is an unexpected laugh when the audience picks up on Candida's (Louise Bangay) experience of student politics at Hornsey College of Art in 1968. The audience are laughing because they think it is a trivial recall but those of us who know about 1968 know that the Hornsey student occupation was second only to the London School of Economics in its political importance.

Though this new play too rarely sparkles with the inventive wit we associate with Stoppard's writing, it may be his most personal as it explores his political philosophy. Aside from the politics, it is a play about love, relationships and friendship and about the continuity of these and a classical education. .

Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Trevor Nunn

Starring: Brian Cox, Rufus Sewell, Sinead Cusack
With: Nicole Ansari, Louise Bangay, Anthony Calf, Martin Chamberlain, Miranda Colchester, Alice Eve, Edward Hogg, Peter Sullivan
Set Design: Robert Jones
Costume Design: Emma Ryott
Lighting: Howard Harrison
Sound: Ian Dickinson
Originally produced at the Royal Court Theatre, London
Running time: Three hours 15 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6623
Booking at the Duke of York's Theatre to 24th September 2006
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 27th July performance at the Duke of York's St Martin's Lane London WC2 (Tube: Leicester Square)

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