November 7, 2007

Rockin' With Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll

There was a time in the 1960s when you could tell a lot about a person, or thought you could, by the rock bands he or she liked. Everyone loved The Beatles; it was the others that defined you. I split my loyalties between the arty surreality of Jefferson Airplane and the soulful loopiness of Sly & the Family Stone. The boy I loved was in thrall to Jimi Hendrix. My best friend was mad about Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. I knew people who worshiped The Doors, who adored The Rolling Stones, who idolized The Who and who were simply fanatic Deadheads. Apparently Tom Stoppard's bands of choice were Pink Floyd and a reluctantly rebellious Czech group called The Plastic People of the Universe. Both play pivotal roles in his thought-provoking new play Rock ‘n’ Roll about the Sixties, the revolutions it spawned, and the promises they did and didn't fulfill.

I didn't think Rock 'n' Roll was so wonderful while I was sitting there trying to get through its first act. There was so much to absorb about the cranky Cambridge professor, played by Brian Cox, who refuses to renounced communism even after Nikita Khrushchev had revealed Stalin's horrors during the purges of the 1930s and the Soviet Union had cracked down on Hungary's bid for independence in 1956. And about the professor's classics scholar wife, played by Sinead Cusack, who specializes in the poetry of Sappho and wages a fierce battle against cancer. And about the couple's hippie daughter, played by Alice Eve as a young girl and as a middle-aged woman by Cusack. And most especially about the professor's young Czech protégé Jan, brilliantly portrayed by Rufus Sewell, who loves the west and rock music but returns to his homeland shortly after the Soviets sent in tanks and troops to crack down on the reformist Alexander Dubček, whose election had set off a heady but ill-fated period that would come to be known as the Prague Spring.

You usually have to drag me out of my seat at intermission but I couldn't wait to get up after the first 90 minutes of Rock 'n' Roll. It was unseasonably cold outside and so my buddy Bill and I huddled together in a little niche at the back of the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre and commiserated about the fact that even though we both had admired Stoppard's nine-hour trilogy The Coast of Utopia last season and thought we were reasonably smart people who were aware of the momentous events of 1968, including the Prague Spring, we weren't having a good time. Others seemed to share our dismay. A few, including the people sitting right in front of us, left. "Oh," said Bill, "there's Nathan Lane walking out with his coat on. I wonder if he's coming back?" He did. Bill and I returned to our seats too. And how glad I am that we did. Just a few minutes into the second act, almost all the things I hadn't understood began to make sense and to emerge as a fascinating commentary on a tumultuous time.

It's become quite trendy for people to be rueful about the '60s. And there are traces of that in Rock 'n' Roll. But Stoppard being Stoppard, it doesn't stop there. The playwright, who was born in Czechoslovakia, left before he was 2 and was raised in England from the time he was 9, has said Jan is his alter ego, the person he might have been had he returned to his native country. The play ends with the triumph of Václav Havel's Velvet Revolution in 1989 and all of its scenes are punctuated with smartly-chosen cuts from rock albums of the 20-year period covered in the play (the song titles and all of the music's credits projected on a scrim between the scenes). Unlike The Coast of Utopia, which celebrated the big name revolutionaries of Russia’s 19th century, this play focuses on average people caught up in the convulsions of their time, people like you and me.

After the show, Bill and I walked to Thalia, which I think has the best burgers in the city, although their reputation suffers among cool-conscious foodies because the quick-cook TV chef Rachel Ray has endorsed them. We ordered the burgers, which come with gruyere cheese, great spicy fries and a lovely little salad, along with glasses of the restaurant's “Big House” red wine to wash them down. And we marveled at how much we had enjoyed Rock 'n' Roll. I said I wanted to see it again. But, of course, there's a big part of me that wants to relive the '60s again too.


Anonymous said...

I've just put a link to your blog up on the Rufus Sewell Forum because I think anyone going to see Rock 'n' Roll should bear this in mind.

I saw it London and then again on it's first preview night in New York and what you say is spot on. And I will tell you, that its something that improves upon viewing. Each time you'll understand more of the nuance and symbolism(I haven't seen a single critic even touch upon the allegory of Eleanor's body being carved up and de-humanized, and what was happening in Eastern Europe at the time.)And there are tons of them.

Then of course I would wax poetic for hours about what a brilliant and gifted artist is Rufus Sewell. Repeat performances only begin to let one exerience the layers he has brought to the character of Jan.

okay, enough from me. It's your blog.

thank you!

Anonymous said...

I wish I had read this before seeing this amazing play. I thought the three hours flew and then reading the play afterwards brought it all home. I began to understand it more. It's a show that makes you think long after seeing it. I am planning on seeing it again with the play still fresh in my head. One let down, I am an admirer of Mr. Cox but I found his performance a tad false. Mr. Sewell's performance was extraordinary.