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It wasn’t only rock and roll

Review by Penny Cole

Tom Stoppard’s new play Rock ‘N’ Roll brings alive the years between the Soviet tanks rolling into Prague in 1968 and the Czech Velvet Revolution of 1989 through the music that brought hope and inspiration to young people from both West and East.

The music of the Beatles, the Stones, Pink Floyd and the iconoclastic Lou Reed, the Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye and many others, is the continuous soundtrack to those momentous political years.

Rufus Sewell is brilliant as Jan, a philosophy student whose revolution is definitely at 33rpm and whose record collection is his opposition manifesto. Rejecting formal politics, he still feels the full devastating weight of state oppression. The Czech authorities ban and prosecute legendary Czech rock band, the Plastic People of the Universe, and Jan is crushed in the same crackdown.

The moment is resonant of the famous Times editorial of 1967 when Mick Jagger and Keith Richard were sentenced to six months hard labour for possession of cannabis, and William Rees Mogg asked: “Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel.”  Jagger and Richards’ sentences were overturned on appeal but the Plastics were banned until the Velvet Revolution. In Stoppard’s play, Jan is reduced to working in a bakery and on his return from prison finds his wonderful collection smashed.

In parallel with Jan’s life in Prague, we follow a family of Cambridge academics who were his hosts when the Prague Spring called him home in 1968. An unreconstructed Stalinist and professor of philosophy, played memorably by Brian Cox (the Scottish accent adds authenticity), supports the Soviet invasion . He enjoys his role as a pet of the Czech regime, attending conferences and sharing snippets with the secret police.

From the comfort of Cambridge academia he gives comfort to the Czech state, and his only half-decent act is to sell information to the secret police in return for their agreeing to find Jan a job. The bakery may seem like a life sentence, but it is better than no job and the risk of constant arrests for “economic parasitism”.

Growing up in Thatcher’s Britain is the professor’s daughter, inevitably and for ever in love with chivalrous Jan, a love story which is rather unbelievable but ultimately quite touching, if you are a bit of a romantic like me. And her journalist husband is a perfect hack, grubbing round Prague and commenting on the fate of the Plastics: “That’s a piece, not a STORY.”

The production marks the passage of time with tracks of the day, and text backdrops with NME-style journalism and whilst these are a good touch, they slow Trevor Nunn’s production down. In fact. Rock and Roll is a bit long and baggy, with perhaps more time than necessary spent in Cambridge.

Like all those living under dictatorships, they have the best jokes. Asked why he has not escaped Czechoslovakia, Jan explains he was offered a job in Frankfurt “but you know… German rock bands”. And in an excellent description of the political/non-political role of rock, he remarks “musicians aren’t heretics – they’re pagans”.

Even the secret agent has a cruel wit, remarking: “We’re supposed to know what’s going on inside people – that’s why we’re called the Ministry of the Interior.” Anyone who wants to know, or be reminded, of the crucial role that music played in the revolutionary uprisings, civil rights struggles and anti-war movements of the sixties and seventies in every part of the world, both East and West, will love this play.

And at the same time it reminds us of the limitations of that revolution. As the professor's daughter concludes: “We changed the world. We dressed up a lot but we were political – but it turned out to be only a cultural revolution.”

21 August 2006

Rock and Roll is at Duke of York's Theatre, St Martins Lane, London. Box Office: 0870 060 6623. Unfortunately, ticket prices in the West End are steep, but there are some tickets in the Upper Circle for £20 and groups of more than 8 can book for £17.50 each. The play runs until November.

The 1956 anti-Stalinist uprising in Hungary is one of the themes of the Only Connect conference on 21 October

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