LONDON — “The opening of a new Tom Stoppard is always so exciting,” said one London critic on the way into the world preem of “The Invention of Love.” Those words, spoken in 1997, are still true today; the playwright’s rep is still hot. The West End transfer of his latest play, “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” was signed and sealed before previews began June 2 at the Royal Court Theater.
Stoppard’s name alone is enough to steady ticketbuyers’ nerves. It has been attached as translator to help bolster otherwise obscure titles like Pirandello’s “Henry IV” at the Donmar Warehouse in 2004, and last year’s Gerald Sibleyras French comedy “Heroes.” But his creative team on “Rock ‘n’ Roll” isn’t doing the box office any harm either, with Brian Cox, Sinead Cusack and Rufus Sewell leading a strong cast, and veteran Trevor Nunn taking the helm.
Nunn is clear about why the production finds itself in the unusual position of planning a move from the subsidized to the commercial sector even before critics weigh in.
“It’s not something that under most circumstances I would have intended or advised,” he says. “But it was the straightforward assessment of all concerned that the play should have a bigger audience than six weeks at the Court with its 400-seat capacity. It would be catastrophic to stay too long there in the theater’s 50th birthday celebrations.” (The Court has filled its anniversary year with a highly varied menu of new productions and classic revivals.)
“If you want to have a theater available, you have to book it in advance, likewise the cast. Some people will shout ‘hubris,’ but it’s obvious there isn’t another solution,” Nunn adds.
Nunn’s association with Stoppard began in 1965 when, as a young director at the RSC, he programmed a serious comedy by the novice writer in a new play season. The entire season fell through for financial reasons, but when Oxford students contacted Nunn a year later looking for a play to take to the Edinburgh festival, he gave them that same unproduced work: “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” After a rave review in the Observer, it was snapped up by the National Theater and Stoppard was officially launched.
The new play has a double structure, set partly in Prague between the violence of the Soviet invasion of 1968 and the Velvet Revolution of 1989, when playwright Vaclav Havel was elected president. Paralleling that is intellectual Cambridge, home to debate between unrepentant communist Max (Cox) and his friends.
“One of the great ironies (“Rock ‘n’ Roll”) it explores is how in England young people with a great deal of freedom and power chose to live in communes and became involved in protest,” Nunn explains. “They had the freedom to so do. In Czechoslovakia, a form of communal living was imposed, and protest was punished at every level.”
The twin locations present a challenge to designer Robert Jones in his first collaboration with Nunn.
“It’s a huge play in a very small space, switching between very contrasting worlds of Cambridge and Prague all night long,” says Jones. “It has been a very collaborative process, and the solution we’ve come up with is neither literal picturebook style nor abstract, but it gives the audience a definite sense of where they are.”
“Rock ‘n’ Roll,” as its title suggests, also is bound up in music and the unseen character of Syd Barrett, the one-time lead singer and songwriter for Pink Floyd who was ditched by the band and disappeared into obscurity.
“Music is the thread of the play,” offers Jones. “We hear a lot of it, and the specific lyrics by Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones are very important.”
Nunn agrees. “It’s not performed live, but there’s a lot of it, partly used ironically within the play.”
Is rock music something of a stretch for a director best known for running the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theater, and helming musicals such as “Cats” and “Sunset Boulevard”?
“I played rhythm guitar and did vocals in a band in my hometown of Ipswich in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll,” Nunn notes.
What more could a playwright ask of his director than hands-on experience?