No one writes argument, information and good jokes all at once and as well as does Tom Stoppard, and his enthralling, sensational new play, Rock 'n' Roll at the Royal Court is the most moving and autobiographical of his career.
Travelling between Cambridge in 1968 and Prague in 1990, the subject is what happened, bounded by those dates, in Stoppard’s native country of Czechoslovakia: the Soviet invasion, the dissident resistance of Charter 77 and the Plastic People of the Universe rock group, and finally the Velvet Revolution.
The leading figure in this saga, Vaclav Havel, to whom the play is dedicated, sat among the first night audience, a few seats from the author and next to, bizarrely, Raine Spencer, the step-mother of the late Princess Diana.
Kenneth Tynan, in a famous essay, once said that Havel was Stoppard’s mirror image. The play’s leading character, Jan, a Czech philosopher at Cambridge – the name stirs echoes of the philosopher Jan Patocka and the student martyr Jan Palach – who loves the Rolling Stones and the Velvet Underground, returns home and is gradually drawn into the political maelstrom.
It’s as though Stoppard is imagining a version of himself in a reverse scenario of his own emigration to England, investing Jan with his own educated diffidence. In Cambridge, he’s at odds with the uncompromising left-wing don Max Morrow, who expresses the dilemma of being a good Marxist in a discredited political system.
The British perspective widens to include flower power – the play starts with the Pan-like figure of Syd Barrett, the lost dark angel of Pink Floyd, serenading Max’s daughter; and feminism – Max’s wife, Eleanor, is tutoring in Sapphic poetry while dying of cancer. One of the masterstrokes is to have the same actress – the translucent Sinead Cusack – play both Eleanor and the grown-up daughter, Esme.
While the “socialism with a human face” of Alexander Dubcek (“a nice guy but, basically, Cliff Richard” says Jan) is replaced by the repressive Husak regime, Mrs Thatcher comes to power in Britain with 37 percent of the popular vote. The increasingly rancid tone of public life is summed up at a dinner party where a former radical journalist (“My boyfriend was a Black Dwarf cartoonist”) is assaulted for writing an intrusive tabloid article about Syd Barrett.
Trevor Nunn has presented this fascinating, intelligent and engaging play in one of his very best productions, brilliantly designed by Robert Jones, covering the scene changes with blasts of the greatest rock music of the era – Dylan, the Stones, the Velvets, Pink Floyd – that express meaning beyond words, the dream of liberation in music that both Jan and indeed Havel believe in.
The casting is impeccable. Rufus Sewell is a husky-voiced, sympathetic figure of increasing involvement, while Brian Cox is simply majestic as the voice of the old left whose integrity is left intact for once. Alice Eve as the daughter and Nicole Ansari as a feminist flame-carrier for a pessimistic diagnosis of British society are both outstanding. Anthony Calf and Peter Sullivan, in a bewildering (but never naff) succession of hairstyles, suggest figures of British condescension and Czech resilience.
Ironically, given the puritan disdain in some quarters for the arrival of Stoppard and Nunn, Cavaliers both, in Sloane Square, Rock 'n' Roll is easily the best political and most grown-up play at the Royal Court in living memory. I can hardly wait to read the text and see it again at the earliest opportunity.
- Michael Coveney