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the complete review - drama
Rock 'n' Roll
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- Rock 'n' Roll was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London, 3 June 2006, in a production directed by Trevor Nunn and starring Rufus Sewell, Brian Cox, and Sinead Cusack
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B+ : clever, but perhaps both too sweeping and cluttered
See our review for fuller assessment.
Most quite impressed, though there are numerous smaller and larger objections
From the Reviews:
- "This new piece smells, well, of sex and drugs and rock and roll. It also feels like an exceptionally personal play, for Stoppard appears to be imagining what his life might have been like had he returned to his native Czechoslovakia after the Second World War, rather than beginning a new life in England. (...) Rock music thus becomes a symbol of both personal and political freedom and its attendant but exhilarating dangers." - Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph
- "Watching Tom Stoppard's extraordinary, epic drama of politics, persecution and protest in 20th-century Czechoslovakia (...) is rather like struggling to answer a compulsory degree question in Advanced Stoppardian studies. (...) Rock 'N'Roll, in its humorous, domestic settling of scores, revelation of middle-aged love and concealed altruism, in Max and his daughter, drive the play on a more mundane tack. This is not quite first-rate Stoppard but still ought to generate a big and serious stir." - Nicholas de Jongh, Evening Standard
- "What is fascinating about the play is that there are no easy victories. (...) But the remarkable thing about the play is that it touches on so many themes, registers its lament at the erosion of freedom in our society and yet leaves you cheered by its wit, buoyancy and belief in the human spirit." - Michael Billington, The Guardian
- "Some of the intellectual debates have a rather rigged ring and Max feels throughout like a convenient amalgam of different types of academic. I preferred the parts where Stoppard the Romantic asserts himself in ways that are less easy to paraphrase. It remains an impressive play, likely to expand in the mind." - Paul Taylor, The Independent
- "Stoppard being Stoppard also introduces counter-themes based on the Pink Floyd's legendary Syd Barrett, Sapphic poetry, journalistic truth and perceptive objectivity. It all works quite merrily because his people are people." - Clive Barnes, The New York Post
- "The philosophic battles between Jan, who loves England unequivocally, and his fire-breathing mentor run the risk of becoming an unmitigated intensity fest (.....) As with The Real Thing, another emotionally gripping Stoppard play with a deep-rooted affection for popular music, the female charcters gradually creep into the foreground only to comand attention with sudden force." - Eric Grode, The New York Sun
- "(T)riumphantly sentimental (.....) The show is rife with instances of mutual understanding, small and large, that form a shifting pattern of pain and forgiveness. For Rock íní Roll is no clear-cut debate play. The men and women who inhabit it canít be boiled down to single, consistent positions, though that would make life much simpler for them." - Ben Brantley, The New York Times
- "The problem with Rock íní Roll, however, is that dramaturgically speaking it doesnít rock. Stoppard at his best (...) is capable of inspired imaginative flights, thrilling grooves of verbal and scenic surprise. But that swift, irrepressible interplay of form and feeling is not in evidence here." - John Lahr, The New Yorker
- "In his most fully rounded, juiciest play since Arcadia, he has put on stage 25 years of Czech history, Leftist disappointment and rock music. (...) Stoppard has pulled off what he failed to do in his last, apparently more ambitious play, The Coast of Utopia: he brings alive the political history of the Eastern bloc, and makes vivid a number of paths not taken. (...) Rock'n'Roll, a third of the length, and delivered in fragmentary scenes, is more immediate, more focused and more contradictory." - Susannah Clapp, The Observer
- "Whatís the point ? That will keep real-life academics busy for years, but, for me, itís mainly to be found in rock íní roll itself. (...) Towards the end, the play itself seems over-complex and over-busy (please tell me why must we bother with the emotional intricacies of Coxís granddaughter and the rest of his family ?). But never mind." - Benedict Nightingale, The Times
- "Yet he writes scenes and speeches that are so poignant, so nakedly, painfully true, that it is sometimes almost impossible to confront them directly (.....) And, finally, there is an eleven line love scene of such austere purity, such technical simplicity, that only a great stylist would dream of daring it. I would recommend that any budding playwright go and learn from it, except that not one in a thousand will come close to this level of mastery of the form." - Judith Flanders, Times Literary Supplement
- "Stoppard's buoyant imagination is invigorated here by tributaries of ideas about politics and art that flow into rivers of wisdom about the nature of revolution and the human craving for free expression. It is principally, however, through the moving struggle of one person, the Czech academic -- played with endearing reserve by the captivating Rufus Sewell -- that the dramatist gives Rock 'n' Roll its fiercely beating heart. (...) Rock 'n' Roll, however, grows steadily in warmth and penetrating insight as it moves ever more emphatically toward a touching and conciliatory resolution. It is Stoppard's most heartening statement in years, a play in which we happily groove to the guitar licks of history." - Peter Marks, The Washington Post
- "Mind you, Rock 'n' Roll is no concert -- not a sit-back-and-take-it-in sort of evening. To quote the estimable Judge Judy, you have to "put on your listening ears" for this one, for Stoppard's restlessly curious brain takes you down paths that will strike more than a few playgoers as exotic, even opaque." - Peter Marks, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Rock 'n' Roll covers the period from the Prague Spring of 1968 through the Velvet Revolution and the fall of Communism in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia.
It also moves between Cambridge and Prague, and the quick shift of scenes and time is appropriately marked by 'smash cuts', the play hopping rather than gliding forward.
Jan, the main Czech figure, complains in 1987:
There are no stories in Czechoslovakia.
We have an arrangement with ourselves not to disturb the appearances.
We aim for inertia.
We mass-produce banality.
We've had no history since '68, only pseudo-history
For all that, Jan and others do try to shake things up and challenge the system.
Jan isn't that interested in politics -- he's more into music (all he takes back to Prague with him when he returns from Cambridge in 1968 are record albums) -- but nevertheless eventually finds himself targeted by the regime and jailed.
For him the Plastic People of the Universe are the barometer of whether or not he lives in a functioning and acceptable society: as long as they can do their thing things are at least on the right track.
It doesn't turn out to be quite that way (or that simple), of course.
The one politically engaged figure, and die-hard communist (who happens to be "exactly as old as the October Revolution"), is Max, a Cambridge professor Jan studied under.
Max is a true believer, even as the ideology that is his faith collapses around him.
He finds himself: "getting to be half-famous for not leaving the Communist Party"
Even in Prague in 1971:
I meet some apparatchik working the system, and he's fascinated by me.
He's never met a Communist before.
I'm like the last white rhino.
Why don't I get it ?
It only gets worse, of course (and by the end even Max has to accept it's pretty much over: it's the mail order catalogs -- "the socks with the little hammers and sickles on them" -- that push him over the edge).
Stoppard has both Jan and Max at least slightly compromised by the communist system (and specifically the Czech regime).
Both remain more or less true to themselves, and yet the insidious regime takes its pound of flesh; after the fall of communism Jan brings Max the Czech secret police file on him: there's nothing terrible ("I've done nothing I'm not prepared to defend" Max says angrily) in it, yet it reveals some of the small things that changed the course of Jan's life.
Jan -- who winds up teaching philosophy, too, though he's rarely presented as any sort of academic philosopher -- wants it to be about the music, in a sense.
He doesn't know what to do with ideology, and is clearly disturbed by the politicization of absolutely everything, which inevitably destroys even the most private sphere.
And it's not just in communist Czechoslovakia: among the saddest passages in the play is when he tries to convince a visiting Englishman to write about a Plastic People of the Universe album:
Maybe you can write about the album.
We read in the foreign press about the band but they never mention the music ... only about being symbols of resistance.
The appeal of the PPU -- and of rock 'n' roll in general -- to Jan is that it is completely outside the system.
Vaclav Havel's dissident approach, on the other hand, almost seems to be giving in too much from the start:
Policemen love dissidents, like the Inquisition loved heretics.
Heretics give meaning to the defenders of the faith.
Nobody cares more than a heretic.
Your friend Havel cares so much he writes a long letter to Husak.
It makes no odds whether it's a love letter or a protest letter.
It means they're playing on the same board.
So Husak can relax, he's made the rules, it's his game.
Music accompanies the Cambridge sections just as much, though here the central figure is the elusive Cambridge Piper, Syd Barrett, the former Pink Floyd for whom even the music was too much.
There are several other significant figures: Max's flower-child daughter Esme (and then her own daughter, Alice), Max's classicist wife, cancer-ridden Eleanor, and Lenka, a fellow Czech who stays in Cambridge when Jan chooses to go back to Czechoslovakia (and studies Philology and Classics).
It makes a for a somewhat crowded field, and the jumps in time make it difficult to follow all the changes all the characters go through -- though steadfast Max's toeing the party line (as he sees it) stands in clever contrast to the many other changes in his household.
Stopprd has bitten off a lot here, and the chewing is not always entirely successful.
The play makes for quite good theatre, with Stoppard effectively using musical excerpts throughout it.
The scenes are strong, with the usual sharp Stoppard dialogue, but the play as a whole feels like it's trying to cover too much ground -- while covering nothing completely.
Certainly of considerable interest, but not entirely satisfying.
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Rock 'n' Roll:
Other works by Tom Stoppard under review:
Works about Tom Stoppard under review:
Other books of interest under review:
- See Index of Drama under review
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About the Author:
British dramatist Tom Stoppard, born in 1937, is author of such notable plays as Arcadia and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
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© 2006-2009 the complete review
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