Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Rock and Roll, Feb 27, 2008

 Rock and Roll 
by Tom Stoppard, Melbourne Theatre Company 
Playhouse, Vic Arts Centre, Feb 27 tol March 29, 2008

Reviewer: Kate Herbert

In Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, hidden within political diatribes about Communism is a story of love unrequited. 

After arguments about revolutions, the failure of socialism, abuse of dissidents and the pursuit of freedom, what we may remember is the reunion of two people separated after Russian tanks rolled into Prague in 1968.

We will also remember the rock music: Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Velvet Underground and the obscure Czech band, Plastic People of the Universe (PPU). As Czechoslovakia struggles after the Prague Spring of 1968, PPU come to represent freedom and an infant revolution that succumbs to further oppression.  Rock music symbolises all that is new, revolutionary and anti-Soviet. Strangely, old rock musicians of the East and West eventually sold out for cash or fame. Is revolution always doomed?

We hear Stoppard’s political arguments and refutations through Max Morrow (William Zappa), an ardent Communist and Professor of Politics at Cambridge, and his ex-Ph. D. student Jan (Matthew Newton), a reluctant Czech spy and, later, a dissident, who is obsessed with Western rock music.

Stoppard is both accused of and praised for being an intellectual playwright. His earlier plays were constructed on witty badinage, wordplay and philosophical argument. In Rock ‘n’ Roll, humour takes a back seat to complex political debate and dense dialogue peppered with historical facts.

The exposition sometimes becomes repetitive or tiring. The various components: rock music, death of communism, Sappho’s poetry and Syd Barrett (drug-damaged ex-Pink Floyd guitarist) do not fully form into a coherent whole by the end but Stoppard takes us on a challenging intellectual, if not emotional, journey.

Simon Phillips’ production sets domestic scenes inside the vast scaffolding of a rock concert venue (Stephen Curtis), complete with giant screen showing political news and footage of rock artists. The cast is impressive with compelling performances from Zappa as the zealous professor, Newton as the hapless, workless Jan, and a fine emotional performance from Genevieve Picot as Morrow’s dying academic wife.

Stoppard, an immigrant to England from Czechoslovakia, developed a powerful relationship with Czech playwright and President Vaclav Havel that is at the base of this play. There is no doubting Stoppard’s skill as a playwright but this personal-political story could give the play more heart.

By Kate Herbert

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