Tuesday, December 18, 2007

"Rock 'n' Roll"

Tom Stoppard's newest has been getting mixed reviews. Critics mostly seem to like it (one said it is "arguably Stoppard's best play"), but audiences (at least those who care enough to post their opinions on discussion boards) are more skeptical. Getting a ticket is pretty easy, even at deep discounts.

After seeing the production tonight, I can see why. The play itself is terrific -- filled with Stoppard's wit delivered by characters that are passionate and fiery -- but with a certain British restraint. The story is rich and important. (And should probably be considered in tandem with Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia" trilogy -- one being about the birth of communism, the other about its death.)

But this production, for many reasons, never lets the power and passion of the play's text really come through to the audience. The cast, though capable (and including Brian Cox, Sinead Cusack and Rufus Sewell), never come together as a true ensemble. The direction is flaccid and impotent, denying not only the passions of the characters, but the menace of totalitarianism that hangs over virtually every scene. We're supposed to be frightened by what Communists clinging to control are capable of -- but we aren't. And the staging (imported, I understand, almost entirely from the National Theatre production in London last year) doesn't seem to fit very well in the Jacobs Theatre. The balance seemed off.

On the positive side, I will say the of all the actors, Rufus Sewell brought the most to his role. (Good thing, too, since his Jan is the heart and soul of "Rock 'n' Roll" -- the idealist who loves the freedom and mad release rock music delivers.)

By the second act, though, I was able to put the production's shortcomings into the background and let the power of Stoppard's words do the work he intended them to do. I loved the arguments about the nature of consciousness and the mind-body (or rather mind-brain) duality.

From what I read, there are many other plays coming up this trip that I will likely recommend more, but if you are a fan of Stoppard's on any level, I don't think "Rock 'n' Roll" is a play you should miss.


Esther said...

You know, this just didn't move me at all. Maybe it was too episodic, moving from one short scene to another, between England and Czechoslovakia. But I never really felt engaged by the characters or their stories. I never got a sense of the forces that made Max a Communist in the first place, or a real sense of what it was like for Jan to live under a totalitarian government. It was like a series of vignettes. And I didn't see how the little snippets of music before each scene fit what was coming next. And the whole Syd Barrett thing seemed superfluous. I was really looking forward to this, but I ended up being really disappointed.

Tom said...

I think your criticisms are pretty much in line with mine. Your issues with Jan seem to me to stem from the lack of menace I cited.

For me, the Syd Barrett stuff was symbolic of the "trickster" spirit of rock 'n' roll, which needed to weave through the play, which is why I think Stoppard put him there.