AISLE SAY New York
ROCK ‘N’ ROLL
by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Starring Rufus Sewell, Brian Cox and Sinead Cusack
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre / 242 West 45th Street
Reviewed by David Spencer
There are dramatists who can reshape world events to create a kind of folk history, one that manages to find a populist acceptance despite a fierce intellectualism. Aaron Sorkin, with his current The Farnsworth Invention is one; Peter Shaffer, with Amadeus and The Royal Hunt of the Sun is another. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee may have created (arguably) the most popular American one, Inherit the Wind. Part of the mainstream success of these plays (and others like them, even unto the Edwards-Stone musical 1776) has to do with their ability to present each historical universe in a “from the ground up” manner. No one in the audience needs to know anything about history to “get it”; in fact, acknowledging that dramatization is not always truth, the authors of each of these plays have constructed what might well be considered basic introductory primers to their subject matter and eras, which invite the uninitiated in, as well as the well-read, well-informed, well-rounded, well-“historied” viewer.
Then there are other dramatists who present more of a challenge. They begin (however tacitly) with the premise that you’re grounded and versed in world history and current events (or should be) and not just those that affect the English-speaking world, but those of other continents and cultures. At the very least, their plays seem to be written with the assumption that if you’ve never taken on the responsibility of such comprehensive awareness and self-education (and you feel loathe to admit it in their presence), you’re nevertheless hip enough to infer background from context. These playwrights seem less interested in reimagining history per se than in portraying the lives of ordinary (and at times extraordinary) people who are affected by history; who stand in for factions of a populace in microcosm buffeted by the winds of changing cultures, governments, policies. Jon Robin Baitz has dabbled here; Richard Nelson too has devised such constructions…but none has been more recognized, lauded, commercially successful—or is more downright intimidating to the casual viewer—than Tom Stoppard.
Mr. Stoppard walks a fine line, and when he’s in history mode, the difference between an impenetrably dense literary conceit and a rousing intellectual provoker lies in how much he’s able to make you care about the characters. For me, I cared about those in his recent The Coast of Utopia trilogy little. Asking me to invest in the revolution-era Russian literary intelligentsia as a collective is a tall enough order, but asking me to care about their reactions to primarily offstage events that they didn’t instigate (no matter how notable those reactions may have been), well, call me a Philistine, but I couldn’t, no matter how much superior thinking, writing, research, insight and wit was involved.
But with his latest, Rock ‘n’ Roll, he steps on the “good” side of the divide. Partly this is because his characters are invented rather than historical, and in being thus unrestricted, he gets to put them in situations that genuinely test their mettle and ability to survive. Partly too, this is because the historical context takes a back seat to a point of view about the context, arguably a fresh one (well, fresh to most everyone except rock-music/pop-culture scholar Griel Marcus, perhaps)—said premise being that rock ‘n’ roll not only symbolized the burgeoning liberation of certain cultures from governmental suppression, artistic censorship and other forms of extreme discrimination, but was in large measure one of the primary forces behind it. Curiously, the characters in the play (which spans 22 years) are no more rock ‘n’ roll artists than they are historical movers and shakers. And their paths have crossed through academia: a Czech named Jan (Rufus Sewell) is obsessed by rock ‘n’ roll, while his former British professor Max (Brian Cox) believes in Communism—the contrast provided, of course, by an oppressed citizen who risks his very freedom by enjoying renegade art; and a citizen of the free world who can safely believe in a system his government rejects. Further irony: Jan is neither aggressive nor public about his passion for rock, while Max makes a career of bemoaning how the tenets of “pure” Communism have been corrupted; each lives realistically and responsibly (albeit with human flaws) in his milieu. But as changing world events reflect changes in fortune over the years, they have real human crises to endure. And if their perspectives don’t precisely change, they deepen. For Max, these involve members of his family, specifically his cancer-ridden wife Eleanor, their daughter Esme and granddaughter Alice (in Act One, Sinead Cusack and Alice Eve assay generations one and two respectively; in Act Two they portray generations two and three). For Jan, these involve his friends, the consequences of sharing their musical passions (i.e, record collecting, attending concerts), plus their ability (and inability) to protect one another. (Upon seeing the massive LP collection in Jan’s small Czech flat, we know it is but a matter of time until it is trashed, and the scene in which he enters to find it so is terribly moving for conveying the understatement of shock; even as you look at the destruction, you almost don’t believe it.)
One of the most successful things about Mr. Stoppard’s new exercise in intellect stretching (and it is that too, as always) is that the human drama, combined with the philosophical stance, provides its own context for Czech Republic/world history of the period. Nice if you know it (and perhaps even better, as Mr. Stoppard hardly spoon feeds it), but if you stay alert and pay attention (and of course In The Land Of Stoppard, one must, or be left in the dust), you pick up enough to infer the larger backdrop.
The production (which originated at London’s Royal Court Theatre) is a handsome one, and under Trevor Nunn’s direction, the ensemble sparkles. Cox’s professor is an iconic combination of bluster, bravado and (paradoxically) genuinely modest bravery. Ms. Cusack, in both her roles, touchingly delivers the complexity of formidable women with well-camouflaged vulnerabilities—and Mr. Sewell manages the astonishing feat of portraying a characrter who convincingly ages, and is even convincingly aged by the events and stress that inform his life as a Czech citizen…yet who never loses his optimism and faith in the ultimate decency of human beings—never expressed in a treackly or unduly naēve way, but rather with a quiet belief that shows through in his enthusiasm for the world’s new music.
Perhaps most astonishing of all is that, by the end of the play, Stoppard’s case for the primacy of rock ‘n’ roll as a history-shaping force is utterly convincing. Not so much because it’s that outrageous an idea, when you think about it; but rather because when you think about it, it’s not such an outrageous idea. And how many playwrights other than Stoppard could lead you to that kind of conclusion…?