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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Royal Court Theatre June-July 2006; Duke of York's Theatre 2006-2007

As is his wont, Tom Stoppard in his newest play combines his extraordinary intellectual agility and verbal wit to turn very unlikely material into entertaining and exciting drama.

As is his wont, he occasionally wears his extensive research a bit too openly and risks wandering off into facts-for-their-own-sake or missing the forest for the trees.

But those are the risks of genius and, as much as we might occasionally wish that this three-hour play had undergone one more round of editing, the delights theatrical, intellectual and emotional - far outweigh the minor flaws.

Stoppard's subject is the fall of Communism, particularly in Czechoslovakia, and his thesis is nothing less than a complete rewriting of Karl Marx, arguing that it was not economic forces or even politics that defeated the great experiment, but a shift in consciousness and spirit.

The surprising legacy of the spirit of the 1960s - love and peace, sex-drugs-and-rock'n'roll - was, he argues, a populace who simply didn't care about politics and thus couldn't be controlled by politicians.

(Put aside whether you find that convincing. I've oversimplified Stoppard's more sophisticated thesis in summarising it. Anyway, it's an interesting hypothesis, worthy of consideration, and the relevant question is not whether Stoppard is right, but whether he makes good theatre out of presenting his case. He does.)

In this richly multi-layered play, Stoppard illustrates his thesis through strands ranging from the realistic to the metaphoric. An unrepentedly orthodox British Communist and a Czech music fan carry on a two-decade debate on the value and relevance of politics.

An underground Czech rock band is an ongoing irritation to the authorities because they're happy just making music and don't respond to the usual carrots and sticks of political control.

A former flower child retains enough of her innocence in middle-class maturity to still engage with life openly and appreciatively. A cancer victim asserts to the end that her spirit and selfhood cannot be touched by a purely physical enemy.

And an ex-rocker still affects others through his music and personality even as he descends into burnt-out obscurity.

Only occasionally does the play threaten to lose its focus as it moves back and forth among these various levels, and the overall effect is to engage your intellect and emotions as you become involved with both the characters and the ideas - in short, all you could ask of a serious piece of theatre.

Brian Cox admirably carries much of the intellectual and emotional weight of the play as the doctrinaire Communist whose soul is warmer than he would like to admit, though it is Rufus Sewell's rock fan, not quite as happy-go-lucky as he first seems, who stands at the centre of the action.

Sinead Cusack, playing both the unbreakable cancer victim and, twenty years later, her ex-flower-child daughter, provides the moving human evidence of the play's thesis.

Director Trevor Nunn deserves credit for guiding them and the rest of the cast through the difficult task of communicating ideas while still creating real and engaging characters.

Those looking for entertainment with meat to it, for a play that will make them think as well as feel - in short, for a Tom Stoppard play - need look no further.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Rock'n'Roll - Royal Court Theatre 2006

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