Saturday, January 13, 2007

TMP on Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll

Thursday, January 04, 2007
Rock 'n' Roll... still rolling

Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll

James Linville, December 15, 2006

While in the Big Apple the first part of Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” trilogy emerges as a hit at Lincoln Center it never quite became in London, here in the Big Smoke his thrilling new play, “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” continues its triumph with a new cast after moving from the Royal Court.

The play, with iconic rock songs serving as a sonic intra-act curtain, is Stoppard’s paean to youthful ideals and illusions, to freedom both political and social/sexual, and (surprising from this most intellectual of playwrights) a gesture toward prizing the heart above the head. It begins in an English garden where a pan-like piper plays Syd Barrett’s “Golden Hair” to a young woman. But was that piper Barrett himself, the Pink Floyd founder and psychedelic visionary who retreated to Cambridge a drug-maddened golden boy? It’s a question that recurs poignantly, asked by that same woman through the decades and throughout the play.

The play, ostensibly about the difficulty of “living in truth” in societies that lie to themselves, charts the contrasting lot of two overlapping worlds, that of a Cambridge academic who happens to be a Marxist (but would define himself the other way around), and his Czech student who thinks of himself as a lover of rock and roll but is soon cruelly defined by the Marxist government he naively returned to live under as a dissident.

Max (David Calder) is the Cambridge don, born the same years as the Russian revolution, never swerving into doubt through the sixties, even during the crushing of emerging Czech liberty by Soviet tanks during the Prague spring of 1968, through the seventies as the Eastern block descends into dull repression, nor even the eighties when Marxism is discredit, the Iron curtain crumbles, and he learns that the Czech communist party had been spying on him.

Jan (Dominic West replacing Rufus Sewell) was his Czech philosophy student, drawn to the gentility of Cambridge and England, and unwittingly leaving behind there a child impulsively conceived with Max’s daughter, the girl in the garden. Jan returns in time for the Prague spring but remains a non-combatant, a Czech simply outraged by the Russian invasion, and then drawn to a perverse Czech art band Plastic People of the Universe.

The Plastic People were, apparently, a Czech hybrid, complete with artistic director in the person of Ivan Jirous, a cross between Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground, who painted their faces like the pop-glam band KISS. The Plastic’s music is now even harder to listen to than Kiss’s, dissonantly ungraspable in their song between acts, and unavailable even on I-tunes, but no matter.... As Stoppard wrote in the play’s “liner notes”: ‘The band was not interested in bringing down communism, only in finding a free space for itself inside the communist society. But of course there was no such space. In the logic of communism, what the band wasn’t interested in and what the band wanted could not in the end be separated. What could not be separated were disengagement and dissidence. In the play, Jan tells a British journalist, “The Plastics is not about dissidents.” The reporter replies, “It’s about dissidents. Trust me”—and he’s right.’

Not that such points are demonstrated, let alone spelled out in the play. Max, far from being portrayed as a deluded unrepentant, scores many good points of his own, and he’s the sole sympathetic Marxist in the oeuvre of the reputedly-conservative, and Czech-born, Stoppard. Instead the playwright riffs around these themes, glides past without touching his characters’ inner lives, as they experience births, marriage and its dissolution, deaths, overlapping affairs, and pauses for an arpeggio only when he returns to one of these motifs.

When Max’s wife, a classicist, played by Emma Fielding, gives a tutorial on Sappho, the Greek poet who was the first to write about life-thrumming Eros, she and her student unpack one of her 7th century BC poems: "Eros deute m'ho lusimeles donei glukupikron amachanon orpeton," and debate on which word turns the meaning of the poem: glukupikron, a neologism of Sappho’s which would mean "sweet-bitter," or instead amachanon, meaning "contrivance, device, instrument." They debate: Is Sappho saying that Eros is a spirit and not a machine? Who knows? I once long ago studied Sappho and I couldn’t follow their argument at all. But perhaps Stoppard’s play is not to be pored over as if it were a machine of meaning, or so the playwright might hope. In any case it is an utterly exhilarating and very funny trip.

What are we to make of the fact that whereas the play began with Barrett’s ineffable sound poem it ends with the Jan and company joyously attending a Rolling Stones concert in Prague as communism was poised to end across Europe. A crystallization of the return of Dionysian and political freedom? The endurance of rock?

While on its opening night last June the audience was sprinkled with some of the rock stars whose music is featured in the interludes, on the first night of the new cast the audience was garnished with other actors, comedians, and novelists. Some, one suspected, had returned for its encore. This remains the hottest ticket in the Royal Court’s fifty-year history, and the center-piece of its anniversary celebration.

Duke of York’s Theater
St. Martin’s Lane, London WC2
Box Office: 0870 060 6623

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