Friday, February 29, 2008

Review: Rock'n'Roll

Rock’n’Roll by Tom Stoppard, directed by Simon Phillips. Designed by Stephen Curtis, costumes by Tracy Grant Lord, lighting by Matt Scott, A/V by Josh Burns, sound design by Kerry Saxby. With Chloe Armstrong, Christopher Brown, Melinda Butel, Grant Cartwright, Danielle Cormack, Alex Menglet, Matthew Newton, Genevieve Picot, Richard Sydenham and William Zappa. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Playhouse Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne, until March 29, Sydney Theatre Company April 11-May 10. Bookings: 1300 723 038.

It’s kind of weird to scroll through the pull-quotes for the Broadway season of Rock’n’Roll, Tom Stoppard’s unstoppable hit about, well, everything except rock and roll. The critics reach for their superlatives and then keep hopping up ever more vertiginous cliffs of fancy. I know I start foaming at moments of excitement, but this mass froth-fest could float a Titanic.

“Triumphantly sentimental,” cries Ben Brantley of the New York Times. “Rock’n’Roll is arguably Stoppard’s finest play. He is a magician, and this is a passionately acted, decades-spanning tale of love, revolution and music. …Stoppard treats the characters of for Rock’n’Roll with a deep affection I've never encountered from him before.” Clives Barnes of the New York Post hands it four stars and says it is "funny and enthralling". “Rock’n’Roll offers you something to take out of the theater you didn’t come in with… revealing the human face of Stoppard behind all the nervy, nervous brilliance.” While Terry Teachout of the Wall Street Journal finds it “an intellectually challenging, intensely theatrical piece of work that is destined to be talked about wherever playgoers gather.”

Though a mere drop of what’s out there, that is probably enough lurv; if you want more, you can google the reviews yourself. It’s a fair sampling of how Rock’n’Roll has been received by critics in the US and Britain. Of course, my worthy colleagues were speaking of Trevor Nunn’s production, which opened to similar plaudits at the Royal Court in London before doing Broadway business in New York; but I’m certain that Simon Phillips has directed the same play.

I can’t really fault Phillips’ production at the Playhouse. Brilliantly cast, swift, economical, and stylish, it demonstrates the kind of panache that was missing from Phillips’s directorial vocabulary all through 2007. Stephen Curtis’s design wisely eschews Nunn's revolve in favour of a concert stage dominated by a huge screen, on which is projected a collage of documentary footage – the fall of the Berlin Wall, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s bed-in, even (briefly) the dismissal of the Whitlam Government. These shift when necessary to scenic backdrops such as Cambridge oak trees or Prague buildings thrusting up through snow, with tables and chairs being whizzed on and off stage by the actors. It all works, and sometimes it works very well indeed.

And then there’s the play. The problem is, I just don’t get it. Let me, for the briefest moment, place my glasses over your eyes. Rock’n’Roll looks to me like a rather pedestrian history play. It plods through the final decades of the 20th century, with the odd burst of Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd adding a brief glamour to grim images such as the Soviet tanks in the streets of 1968 Prague. With the exception of a couple of undeniably powerful moments, I simply don’t understand why it’s made rational people go weak at the knees. Maybe it's just a function of nostalgia for the 1960s. Maybe you had to be there.

Stoppard gives us a potted history of Czechoslovakia’s adventures behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, through the figure of the dissident rock and roll fan Jan (Matthew Newton). Simultaneously, he follows the fortunes of a small family in Cambridge, friends of Jan – the classics professor Eleanor (Genevieve Picot) and her grumpy Communist husband Max (William Zappa). And in between the familial and social histories, we are told how the anarchic wisdom of the body, the joyous, erotic freedom of rock and roll, is the real revolutionary beat of the 20th century.

Punk, briefly the most anarchic music of them all, scarcely scores a mention. The closest we get is The Cure. I’m not enough of a rock snob to follow the semiotics of this, but somehow it is of a piece with the play. Punk wasn’t nice and – when it started, anyway, which was also more or less when it finished – it was about poor kids. This is not a play about poor people, in the same way it’s not about rock music. It’s about people who worry about poor people, and who have record collections. It talks about passion, which can often be mistaken for passion itself, but – as Osip Mandelstam once said of some unfortunate poet – the sheets are unruffled: the muse has not spent the night.

Rock’n’Roll is by no means a great play, and certainly nowhere near Stoppard’s best. I’m not even sure if it’s a good play. It’s just... determined. You know that Czechoslovakia is going to get the Rolling Stones, and by gum they do; and freedom radiates everywhere, as if the Stones were the model of democratic equity.

Stoppard wisely stops history in 1990 - before the Balkan Wars, the razing of Grozny, the rise of the Russian Mafia and the increasing tyranny of Putin’s leadership can make his thesis about capitalism’s essential benevolence a little strained. You can see that a little handkerchief is fluttering for British decency and oddness, which is so much nicer than almost anything else. The faithful old Cambridge Marxist Max (William Zappa) is politically compromised and ideologically wrong, but underneath it all, he's really a loveable chap.

There is one extraordinary speech from Eleanor, who is dying of cancer, which is delivered with such passion by Genevieve Picot that the hair stood up on my neck. And the other real moment of the play also belongs to Picot, this time as Eleanor’s daughter Esme. Both are moments when eros becomes more than an interesting word, but rather the vital, dangerous and powerful force that underlies life itself.

But these come out of nowhere. Between them are many tedious set pieces where different characters argue about, for instance, What Went Wrong With The Revolution in a kind of sub-Trevor Griffiths way, or in which we’re clunkily given the intellectual subtext (Pan, Eros, Sappho and Pink Floyd versus Marxist collective consciousness and the Eastern European police state).

Phillips has such a good cast that they mostly make a silk hearing aid out of the sow’s ear. They can’t transform the script into something it's not, but they create a fluid dynamic on stage that injects a lot of pleasure into watching the production. There are no weak performances: besides Picot, who reminds us that she is a major talent who is not seen enough on our stages, I enjoyed Matthew Newton’s portrayal of Jan, the reluctant Czech dissident who, in spite of himself, finds that wanting to listen to rock music is a subversive activity, and Chloe Armstrong's disarmingly passionate performances as the young flower-child Esme and Esme’s daughter Alice.

There are a couple of excellent thumbnail sketches: Grant Cartwright’s vivid appearance as the new generation Cambridge Marxist, and Danielle Cormack as the Czech intellectual exile, Lenka. William Zappa bears the brunt of Stoppard’s desire to turn drama into a history of ideology, and all I can say is, he does his best, finding life even there. But with all this talent, all this energy, all this style and money, it’s still an ordinary play.

There’s a very strange scene in which Stoppard makes a clumsy attempt at Pinteresque menace, and achieves something rather like the Monty Python sketch where Inquisition victims are threatened with a comfy chair (or, in this case, a stale biscuit). Our dissident’s record collection is smashed up, but we understand nothing about his prison sentence: everything remains at the level of idea. You no more feel the visceral terror of the secret police (as you do, say, in Kafka’s The Trial or Ismael Kadare's The Palace of Dreams) than you want to get up and dance.

It did make me wonder why I wouldn’t be better off reading a book. A decent post-war history and Anne Carson’s excellent book on classical poetry, Eros the Bittersweet, with Pink Floyd on the turntable, would basically cover all the necessary territory.

Stoppard recently turned 70. It's been a long time - more than four decades - since the wordplay and irresistible intellectual conceit of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead dazzled English critics. Since then he's written about the failures of ideology, the drama of the Cold War and the nexuses between art, science and politics in play after play - Travesties or Hapgood or The Real Inspector Hound or Squaring the Circle, to name a few. He could write about this stuff in his sleep; and, judging by the linguistic vitality of Rock'n'Roll, he probably did.

I have formed a theory that Stoppard is no longer a playwright, but a phenomenon (JK Rowling is another). There is nothing you can do about a phenomenon, since the responses to the phenomenon have very little to do with what said phenomenon actually writes.

If this play were written by Tom Smith, you can be pretty sure that nobody would have noticed it. But because it’s by Tom Stoppard, it is automatically “witty” and “intellectual”, whether this is borne out in the script or not. We can laugh while chewing on the roughage of, say, Sapphic scansion in the Latin poetry of Catullus, and feel perhaps a teeny bit intimidated and maybe, too, a teeny bit superior.

It makes us feel that culture is good for us: we're learning something. And that saves us from the existential doubt that might otherwise erupt from art's joyous and revolutionary purposelessness. If the medium is the message, then Rock'n'Roll has it all backwards. This isn't a play about rock'n'roll anarchy and erotic passion. No, it's where Apollo KO's Dionysius with a text book, and then he pinches his t-shirt.

As I left the Playhouse, I had a brief conversation with a nice man who had obviously enjoyed himself. He became a little annoyed when I said that I had been mostly bored. He said that Rock'n'Roll was entertainment, and couldn't be held to the standards of serious art (and that, basically, I was being a snob; only he was too polite to say so). But I don't think it's as easy as that. A huge element of the dazzle that surrounds Stoppard is the illusion that he makes a "theatre of ideas"; that in fact, this isn't mere "entertainment", but a worthy kind of art. It's art as social artefact, as intellectual trinket, for an economy that values information over wisdom.

Me, I'm unable to tell where art finishes and entertainment begins. I find Pirates of the Caribbean or Chicago entertaining, but I think Waiting for Godot is entertaining as well. On the one hand, I don't think Rock'n'Roll is entertainment; but on the other, I don't think that it's art, either.
It's something else. I'm not sure quite what it is, but I suspect it's some kind of mass hallucination. The real question is whether it is, as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy said of Planet Earth, mostly harmless. Or not.


  1. I love Tom Stoppard and his gift for writing incredible dialogue. Rock 'N' Roll was by far one of the shows I anticipated more than any last year when it was coming to Broadway.

    So when I actually saw the play last fall, I thought to myself, between yawns, "This is is?!" I thought the emperor had no clothes. I'm glad to know I'm not alone.

  2. I often felt like I was at an information session or seminar being given by a very learned person. Some people eat that kind of thing up and I guess it is a matter of taste but it's not what I look for when I go to the theatre. Perhaps my being an academic has something to do with that--it's too similar to what I get all the time in connection with my work. I avoid writers' festivals for the same reason.

    I'm new to Stoppard. My only previous experience was a recent production of "Arcadia" at Chapel Off Chapel. Oddly, although that didn't depict actual historical events, I came away with similar misgivings. There were a lot of learned discussions and disquisitions that didn't seem to contribute much to the play.

    That said, there were scenes in both plays that made me glad I went. Alison mentions "one extraordinary speech" delivered by Genevieve Picot. I presume that is the moving speech where she talks about her self being whole despite her body being eaten away by cancer. That was so extraordinarily good that it made the whole evening worthwhile for me. Another scene involves someone (who slips my mind) passionately maintaining that regimes are less threatened by active dissidents than by longhairs who are indifferent to the political system. The sentiment isn't new but it was eloquently expressed.

    So there were a number of scenes that I found moving or that had impact on me. I just wish that there were more of them.

  3. I've had this problem with Stoppard ever since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which always seemed to me, compared to its progenitive Waiting for Godot, more of a graduate-school jeu d'esprit than anything else. The coin-flipping that reminded one of "One of the thieves was saved, the other damned" (and, to me, far less haunting); the placement of the play itself within Hamlet led to the giggles, rather than the shock, of recognition. It flatters the audience for being in on the joke -- congratulates them, even, with a wink and a nod. Now that's always nice, but it's still just a joke.

    I suppose there are levels of art and levels of entertainment as well, and at some point it becomes an argument about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Maybe that's a good metaphor for Stoppard's work, really -- machine-like and, on some level, winning in the ways that it can juggle abstractions in the tight space of a "well-made" play. But not, to coin a phrase, "The Real Thing."

  4. Hi y'all... I haven't read Stoppard for years and dragged out a number of plays while thinking about this one. And then I remembered why I haven't read him. It's all so dreadfully clever, and that can make your teeth ache sometimes, though there is a real zing in the language of his best work. You're right, George, so much of its appeal is about flattering an audient's intellectual vanity. All the same, even judging by Stoppard's own standards, this is not an exciting play. NTG, I don't know how you'd go with the other work, but I feel thankful the MTC didn't decide to do The Coast of Utopia. (Or maybe it has? You never know. Nine hours of bottled Russian philosophy would make the blood freeze in your veins...)

  5. Your instinct is correct about Coast of Utopia Alison. I saw it in NYC and had to throw away my very expensive ticket for Part Two as the first four hours was almost unbearable. I understand Jennifer Ehle got naked in the second half, which would have been the only redeeming feature in this bleakest of landscapes.

  6. No chance of making a killing from the scalpers? The NY times seemed to go into a frenzy on this one, and I presume whipped up a lot of box office: in particular, they printed a long list of reference books to read before you went. To Stoppard's credit, he seemed embarrassed about this.

  7. I tried offering them back at the box office and they wouldn't take them (something to do with Ticketek) and it was freezing cold and the amber glow of a comforting bar beckoned from across the street...strong drink was needed after four hours of Ethan Hawke's histrionics...

  8. it can't possibly be as bad as "The Vertical Hour" at STC though. Ugh!!!

  9. I saw the MTC's production of Rock 'n' Roll last night (Saturday 29 March 08), googled today (Sunday) for reviews, stumbled across the comments on this blog, and would like to offer some brief alternative comments.

    Stoppard has written a number of compelling plays that deal directly and strongly with totalitarianism, and with the way in which both language and people are debased in a political system that elevates spin to violent police–enforced compliance with the views of those who run the State (captured succinctly in Rock ’n’ Roll when the police destroy the hero’s collection of rock records and piss in his flat).

    Cahoot’s Macbeth (in which State police destroy a private performance of Macbeth by dissident Czechoslovakian actors forbidden to perform publicly) and Professional Foul (in which an English academic visiting Czechoslovakia is confronted with a brutal display of State control of private lives) are two examples of Stoppard’s successful dramatisation of the corruption of life under communism.

    A number of his other plays (Travesties, The Real Thing, Night and Day, for example) have parodied the simplistic endorsement of communism by people living freely in the west.

    These and other plays by Stoppard are put together with a great deal of intelligence, humour and entertainment.

    Rock ’n’ Roll combines the anti-totalitarian themes, and the observations of life in communist Czechoslovakia, that are in some of Stoppard’s earlier work, with the wit, comedy and play of ideas that has been in much of his broader work. Thus, we get comedy about 60s hippies and ageing rockers, reflections on more complex and spirited approaches to life (as evidenced in some Sapphic poetry), robust debate on political systems, and a dénouement that unites a Czech national denied the right for much of his life to be left alone with a middle-aged English ex-hippy happy to leave a country that seems to have lost its nerve. All put together with great craftsmanship, and in the MTC’s production given a thoroughly professional and entertaining airing.

    So when I read the comments in this blog about Rock ’n’ Roll being pedestrian, about Stoppard’s plays being “dreadfully clever”, and the production only engaging when one of the lead characters laments cancer’s destruction of her body (but not her spirit – and that’s the point missed in the blog’s comments), I’m inclined to think the comments are superficial and ill-informed. At least do the play the courtesy of understanding its context and history if you are going to go public with dismissive reactions.

  10. Hi Peter - you are welcome to say what you like, although this blog does have a policy that discourages personal abuse. But be fair: I did pay the work the courtesy of attention, and, if you give my review the same courtesy, you will see that I do indeed discuss its context and history. And I do mention Stoppard's earlier explorations of these themes, and give him his due. I thought this play, in comparison with that earlier work, was very jejune. You don't: fair enough. But perhaps if you want to argue with my review, you ought to read it again.

  11. Alison

    Thanks for taking the trouble to respond to my comment on Rock ’n’ Roll. I have reread your review, which is a thoughtful piece.

    My comments were reacting more to the comments below the review, which seemed to me to reinforce a view often put about Stoppard’s work, viz., that much of it is superficially engaging wit without much intellectual substance (a view he sometimes has encouraged), whereas my impression has always been that he undersells the rigour and value of his political plays, and the general humane philosophy which seems to inform his broader work (I’m thinking particularly of Arcadia and Invention of Love).

    Nevertheless, that is a matter for more concentrated analysis than here.

    I’m glad I’ve discovered your blog. I read and agreed completely with your reviews of Holding the Man and Platonov (especially the latter, which was an exceptionally engaging and stimulating production).

    I look forward to reading your blog regularly from now on. Best wishes.

  12. I look forward to hearing your voice in the mix, Peter! And intelligent argument is always welcome here.

  13. Peter Naughton remarked "So when I read the comments in this blog about Rock ’n’ Roll ... only engaging when one of the lead characters laments cancer’s destruction of her body (but not her spirit – and that’s the point missed in the blog’s comments), I’m inclined to think the comments are superficial and ill-informed."

    I'm not sure Peter read the comments that carefully. I said:

    "...there were scenes in both plays that made me glad I went. Alison mentions "one extraordinary speech" delivered by Genevieve Picot. I presume that is the moving speech where she talks about her self being whole despite her body being eaten away by cancer. That was so extraordinarily good that it made the whole evening worthwhile for me."

    OK, I used the word "self" as remaining whole rather than "spirit". If that's missing the point, the subtle distinction escapes me. I think Alison's initial complaint about Peter not reading the blog that carefully does some substance.

  14. Sorry, the previous comment got published before it was complete (clicked "publish" rather than "preview" by mistake). Here is the additional bit.

    Peter Naughton said:
    "My comments were reacting more to the comments below the review, which seemed to me to reinforce a view often put about Stoppard’s work, viz., that much of it is superficially engaging wit without much intellectual substance..."

    It's occurred to me that Peter may have thought I was being sarcastic when I said:

    "I often felt like I was at an information session or seminar being given by a very learned person. Some people eat that kind of thing up and I guess it is a matter of taste but it's not what I look for when I go to the theatre. Perhaps my being an academic has something to do with that--it's too similar to what I get all the time in connection with my work. I avoid writers' festivals for the same reason."

    I wasn't being sarcastic. I felt like I was at something given by a *genuinely* learned person. I thought the presentation of political/philosophical issues showed genuine understanding of them and it wasn't superficial or distorted. So it's *not* that I thought it lacked intellectual substance. In fact, if anything, the reason it didn't engage me was that it had *too much* intellectual substance for me. I'm not looking for intellectual analysis when I go to the theatre. As I said, some people do love that kind of thing but perhaps my being an academic makes me look for something different in the theatre, something different from what I get all the time in connection with my work.

  15. Hi NTG - I actually don't think it's so much a question of intellectual substance as dramatic interest. Ibsen, say, is full of intellectual substance; but he also knows how to make the ideas more than abstractions that are tossed between talking heads (which for me was mostly the case in Rock'n'Roll). Rather, the ideas behind the work are viscerally inherent in the action on stage. That's certainly what makes theatre exciting for me.

  16. I really enjoyed this production- i found the direction to be thoughtful and engaging; the set design was pared back and allowed the audience to engage with the sounds and rhythms of Stoppard's language- a kind of rock and roll in itself- the changes between scenes were swift and moving- conjuring up ideas of repression and underground movement; the performances were controlled, making each movement strike into the audience- it is in this case that i believe the play works. Combining the complex dialogues and language employed by Stoppard- and the subtle direction and design of the MTC production- it is here that the integrity and true 'greatness' of Rock 'N' Roll comes to life. I came to the production free of expectation- knowing very little of Stoppard's work- and i left carrying beautiful images and thoughts- stemmed firstly from a 'great' play and production, and secondly, i did not expect or wait to be engaged- simply because there was no need.

  17. Hi Alison ---

    This will probably be a fairly useless comment but I just wanted to comment cos I saw the Sydney production two nights ago and came to read your review cos I finally could.

    You've made me realise I had an extremely personal response to the play --- which is not necessarily a bad thing, of course --- but more importantly, makes me wonder about the inroads for a play. I wasn't alive during the Sixties, I knew nothing about Czech history and the only Stoppard I know is Ros & Guil which admittedly I love to bits.

    For me, the whole appeal was the music aspect and especially the Syd Barrett mythology. That gave me an entry point to all the issues and emotions of the play. And I absolutely loved it.

    But now I wonder if maybe that made the play of an extremely limited appeal?

    A play about politics is the last thing I would attend. A play about history, perhaps. And I don't consider myself either a pleb or a snob. :p So I guess the fabulous thing was to see music I loved used in a way to make me think about issues I either won't or haven't thought about for a long while.

    Sorry, this is a bit useless and after the fact but I felt maybe someone oughta stand up for the musical aspect of the play, if only as a mad Syd Barrett fan. Heh.

  18. just a massive longshot, if anyone went to rock'n'roll on May 6 at STC and sat in the middle of row o (i think) and made eyes at the guy (me) two rows infront, please reply. I know this is SO stupid but you looked like the nicest person, and i will probably never see you again, you have just stayed in my mind. this is i guess a bit of a message in a bottle.

  19. Hi Dri - Nothing against Syd Barrett in saying that it all seemed a bit lumpen to me, as an argument about philosphy or music... but I'm glad it worked for you.

    And Anon, your plea touches that romantic chord - good luck!

  20. Hi

    I'm Albanian, I know pretty well Ismail Kadare above mentioned and I know also well what it means to live in a communist system. And I sincerely can tell you that Kadare never struck me as much as Rock 'n' Roll, by Stoppard. First of all, Kadare never was persecuted or censored by such a system, he was part of it, and even though he is a very good writer he never really wrote about the humiliation and the heart loosing of a man in such a system. On the other hand, Stoppard, who didn't personally live under a communist dictatorial state captured very well the core of the problem: if you kill a man's spirit, someday you would achieve his final death, even though that man might still be walking around. So did the communist system all over East Europe: killed the spirit, the hopes and the future of intellectual people, mostly of the ones that truly believed in a better communist world, as Jan does when he goes back to Czechoslovakia. And his confrontations with Max, an idealist living out of the real communist context tell us a very strong truth lying underline. What do you expect in the end? This man, which dreams and spirit was smashed step by step, until to his last vinyl, after 40 years of loosing faith, to become a hero? What else will he now find in the west? Now he has lost anything, all he can finally do is at least live once again a live rock concert in his country, as a dim light through his juvenile dreams... I'm pretty sure that people living under communist systems will strongly live this play as a very personal experience, as a song played for their own soul, and even though this political play (I would fully call it) has no more deaths as all political tragedies through the history course, it is not less strong and soul captivating

  21. I think Peter is about the ONLY one who has really studied this play and understood it. Alison, I feel that your initial comments which you seem to retract on, when disputed by Peter, later in this blog are very inappropriate. This play, in typical Stoppard style, is deep, analytical, illustrative and portrays a period in history which is particularly brutal with verve and vigour balanced very correctly by the musical revolution. The use of the Rolling Stones' music is the most obvious choice given their repertoire as the Rock Band in existance for the longest period in time and history just as Pink Floyd was directly associated with the fall of the Berlin Wall. So please, give the play a chance and read it with all its references to context before launching into a critique.

  22. "Inappropriate"? Why? Are your remarks any more "appropriate"?

    My critique - and you'll have to forgive me, but this was now many productions ago - was basically that at the visceral level where drama lives for me, it didn't communicate. I quite understand that it might engage people on the level of intellectual argument, but my question then is, why make it theatre?

  23. Dear Alison

    This play is definitely theater, in fact, in a very strong and specified context. I think that it might be hard for people that don't know the communist reality to understand and live it, but of course the ones that know this reality fully appreciate its simpleness of saying such strong truths, above all that people are more than just "physical matter". Can you imagine the means a system would use to fight this kind of existence that goes beyond the physical? What does he have to do? Kill the spirit? How?
    This is all explained by this play, in the human relationships the characters have with each other and in the simple things they fight for.
    I'm sorry, I didn't see the production you are reviewing in here and I don't know if the director could capture this, but you say the drama couldn't communicate, that explains to me that the director went not in the right direction (being a theater director myself I definitely cannot pretend his direction was wrong). But when you read it, what Stoppard is trying to say through the play is fully understandable.

  24. Hi Opeshke - living in the consumerist West has its own kind of totalitarianism, its own materialist tyranny, as Vaclav Havel pointed out.

    I can certainly imagine the things you say. Which is not the same as living through them. I can't imagine that it would make me think any better of the play, though. I think that we'll have to have agree to differ.