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September 22, 2006

Fellow-Travelling, Czechoslovakia and the soundtrack to our lives: Rock 'n' Roll - Tom Stoppard

Posted by Richard D. North

Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll (2006)
directed by Trevor Nunn
Duke of York's Theatre, London
22nd July 2006 - 25th February 2007

As A. A. Gill noted in the Sunday Times, there's a decade or two for each of us when popular music seems to be "written just for you". He was discussing the idea of our having soundtracks to our lives. There were perhaps signs of the phenomenon when cinema and wireless made popular songs into shared public and private experiences. But surely the notion becomes unavoidable in the 1950s and 1960s, when every bedroom had a Dansette and music - pop and rock music - became ubiquitous? This sort of thought lies behind Stoppard's new play - it stars a lo-fi record player - and it is a comfortingly democratic, classless and unsnobbish show. That makes it doubly exhilarating.

Tom Stoppard is some sort of right-wing intellectual snob, so it's refreshing to have him stay very true to all that whilst laying out a play whose own soundtrack - the rock music of forty and thirty years ago - is from a song-sheet which may not be entirely brain-dead, or even wholly populist, but is certainly demotic.

Stoppard has always had the luck of the devil. He seems to sail from triumph to triumph without hiatus or hernia: there is no pause or strain to his progress. With Rock 'n' Roll, God became his publicist.

Two off-stage luminaries stalk the piece. There's a Czech sort of proto-punk called Ivan Jirous and his band, the Plastic People of the Universe, and there's Syd Barrett, the poet-singer who was a big part of the talent behind the Pink Floyd of "Piper At the Gates of Dawn". Syd overdid drugs, burnt out, and became a recluse in Cambridge. At the last, he was not merely a minor cult, but was also proved to have rediscovered his timing: he died within a month of the opening of Stoppard's homily to him.

It's none of my business, really, but it's easy to agree with Ira Nadel, Stoppard's biographer, in imagining that the playwright is drawn to the rock star world. Aren't many of us? He understands the feeling people have of owning the rock music they grew up with: there's the illusion that without us it wouldn't have happened. Stoppard of course can go further. His friend Mick Jagger, to whom he bears a slight resemblance (their mouths could do a molecule swap), probably reciprocates the compliment. It would be just like a brilliant wordsmith to have wished that he could have said a good deal of what was in him by wriggling his hips and pouting, and just like Jagger to wish that he were remembered for aphorisms.

And it would certainly have been pleasant, anyone must feel, to have had Keith Richards cranking out the sub-text. And on drums, Charlie Watts, looking like Bertrand Russell and bringing a certain steadiness to proceedings. In Syd, there was much of the mystery of that world: peaking early, being dazzlingly lovely, giving utterance to a generation.

But what to do about growing up? Rock 'n' Roll is about that. It's about Eleanor, the feminist wife of a Marxist don at Cambridge, and her daughter Esme who fancied Syd when he was beautiful and indestructible, and Esme's daughter Alice - a cool and wise child of the 1980s and 1990s - who takes on the chore of shielding Syd from vulgar gaze.

On stage, the central figure of the play is Jan, an anglophile Czech who avoids commitment to any creed or party except rock music, at least until the sovietised Czech state makes avoidance impossible.

Heroism isn't honest work, the kind which the world going round,
he says. Stoppard's theatrical tricks are always dazzling, and elevate tricksiness to art. This time, he has Jan speak in a ditzy, squeaky Czech accent when he's in Cambridge being loved by everyone, and in a much more forceful and formed Received English when he's infuriating all and sundry "back home" in Czechoslovakia. Rufus Sewell makes these transitions observably yet subtly, which can't be easy. Not least, he keeps them this side of comedy. He becomes one tad too stooped and other worldly towards the end, but it's overdoing only by a whisker.

As both Eleanor, Max's slightly feisty wife, and Esme, her slighty fey daughter (when older), Sinead Cusack has a shift of gear of her own to make, and does it beautifully. Alice Eve, who has similar shifts to make as the daughter Esme (when young) and as daughter/granddaughter Alice, does well too, though it's less testing work. (Don't worry if you can't keep up: this is Stoppard, and it's easier to get on the night.)

Brian Cox has to encompass a man's early maturity and take it through to something which is tottering on the brink of anecdotage, and does that well too. Since we are also watching an unrepentant Communist and Soviet stooge (not quite a "Tankie", but close) as he slides within earshot of the mainstream, it's good to watch Cox hanging on to the growly butchness of the mid-life academic and which never quite becomes empty booming in the old man. A younger man mocks a remark of his and gets a nice bark back:

You haven't earned the right to condescension! You lilywhite turd, I'll let you know when I can take a joke!
This is a political drama, though - like Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia - its genius is to bind the intellectual and the political with an apparently easy, a surprisingly real, human drama. Rock 'n' Roll never feels like a saga, and that's extraordinary since it is at least two: the history of Czechoslovakia and fellow-travelling, and the long-term friendships of two men, Jan and Max, and three generations of women. To make that all funny, telling, challenging and fast-moving is a work of genius, surely. Three hours whiz by.

And how does the rock 'n' roll fit into all this? The essence of it is that it has no purposes and no agenda. Bands like Pink Floyd, Cream or the Stones had no politics. But a generation - or more importantly, all the micro generations which go on at the same time - found in that music the perfect expression of what they felt and thought about the world. We put all the meanings into the songs which we wanted. The point is we chose the meanings.

Stoppard and Jan take this observable fact, true of all parts of the world, and see it at work as a generation of middle Europeans tried to find a way of living in a Soviet regime. It is moot whether they adopted the music as an act of political rebellion at all. What matters is that grown-ups - Soviet or not - smelled a rat in all that twanging and thumping, and the long hair which went with it. Jan is both naïve and sound when he believes that a love of this stuff is surprisingly important and sustaining, and is so whether it's the real, easily-consumed thing in the West or a theatrical, amateurish rip-off in the East. Indeed, its deeper importance is driven home to him when he - who has sought to avoid political involvement (why play the enemy's game?) - becomes a victim of the regime's inchoate rage at this obviously if weirdly dissident material.

Stoppard has two areas of weakness, and thank goodness he has those at least. He hero-worships women and Czechoslovakia, the latter case taking the form of hero-worshipping Václav Havel. One suspects that Stoppard's guard is down when he deals with them, and we get slightly less good value. One merit of Rock 'n' Roll is that there's always a change of scene and new song expected soon: the occasional worthiness is short-lived. Besides, Eleanor, at least, does have a powerful argument: cancer is eating her up and she's not keen to have her soul and spirit confused with her body or brain. Max, to his credit, says that he loves her with all he's got, and whether it's his brain or his mind - or her mushier idea of soul - is a tad irrelevant.

But the brilliance of the piece consists in the integration of Eleanor's mind and soul stuff with the heart and soul of the Czech dissidence. Rock 'n' roll expresses the freedom to have a non-mechanical essence without reference to the state. The state hates rock 'n' roll because it's stuff people like all by themselves. And Jan argues:

Policemen love dissidents, like the Inquisition loved heretics.
At least both lots care about the same things. But not pagan rockers.

We are in the same sort of territory Dickens found in Hard Times: the circus as the antithesis of industrialisation. Circus, rock 'n' roll, religion, opera: they have the same priceless irrationality that makes sense of life. And the Plastic People of the Universe partly appeal to Stoppard, one suspects, because he can claim, as he does in the programme notes, to have learned of them from Havel. Stoppard's hero - this philosopher king - understood that bad states rob words of their proper meanings, and sooner or later people will spot it, and feel the insult and reclaim the right to use words properly. Words may be public, of course they are, but they are private too and can't be messed-with without cost. Rock 'n' Roll stands as the noise people listen to whilst finding their voice and before they quite know what to say. But they know or at least feel that it's authentic and it stands forever after as something which brands them.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence. Richard D. North's Let's Scrap the BBC: How to set broadcasters free will be published by the Social Affairs Unit this winter.

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