On the face of it, Tom Stoppard is the least autobiographical of writers. A master conjurer of language and situation, he’s so dexterous at juggling ideas you almost don’t notice him keeping raw emotion at arm’s length. Yet his last play, the three-part “The Coast of Utopia,” was about exiles, a theme close to his heart. The playwright regarded as quintessentially English was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937 and left there a year later. And powerfully evoked emigre feelings of confused identity — what you have and what you have lost — are central to his dangerously diffuse but cumulatively emotional new play “Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
Had Stoppard returned from England to communist Czechoslovakia after Soviet-led troops crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, the year in which the play opens, he might have been very like his central character. Jan (Rufus Sewell) has been basking with delight in all things English while studying at Cambridge.
Jan is initially surrounded by the fiercely argumentative but appealing family who individually embody the play’s many governing ideas. Max Morrow (Brian Cox) is Jan’s professor, a Marxist hard-liner utterly unable to countenance the lily-livered notion of a gray area.
In contrast to Max’s unshakeable belief in the importance of the socialist system over individual lives, his wife, Eleanor (Sinead Cusack), is an academic specializing in the writings of Sappho: Her work is about not just individual passion but the necessity of individual interpretation. She is also fighting cancer, a personal struggle played out against the wider death of idealism and hope. Those two notions are what define her dreamy daughter Esme (Alice Eve), whom we first meet in the opening scene as a sweetly naive 16-year-old with a crush on Jan.
By the end of the play in 1990, Jan and Esme have reunited. The play’s focus, however, is on the politics surrounding separate journeys through twin histories of the intervening years.
This is outlined in cross-cut scenes between Prague and Cambridge in a manner more akin to film that makes enormous demands of designer Robert Jones. Faced with endless short scenes switching locations that need constant updating, he resorts to domestic interiors on a cumbersome revolve with the side walls of the set changing to illustrate each city.
Having returned home, Jan believes in the possibility of accommodation within the system and remains skeptical of his friend Ferdinand (Peter Sullivan), who sees nothing but danger in state control.
Events, however, overtake Jan. He’s imprisoned for dissidence, which actually grows out of his obsessive love of rock ‘n’ roll, most notably Czech band the Plastic People of the Universe, whose 1976 trial for being subversive sparked the protest that ultimately led to the Velvet Revolution.
Throughout the long and forbiddingly dense first act, the fury of contrasting English and Czech political struggles is painstakingly detailed, as are the sounds that accompanied them. Rock was everyone’s soundtrack, and each scene is fronted by snatches of pertinent music of the period, from Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones to the Beach Boys singing ironically, “Wouldn’t it be nice to live together/In the kind of world where we belong.”
In the first half, ambition outstrips achievement. Anyone without a basic grasp of Czech politics is likely to be lost in the interstices of the arguments. It’s gratifying to have a dramatist refusing to overexplain, but it’s hard to measure the weight of exchanges when information overrides drama as there is so little subtext with which to engage.
The exception is a fight between intransigent Max and dying Eleanor. She furiously argues that his belief in collectivism and the insignificance of individual power puts him “in cahoots with my cancer.” The disease may be eating her alive, but her soul remains. That scene resonates in the far less expository — and more emotionally accessible — second half, the play’s structure bearing out Eleanor’s (and Sappho’s) distinction between machinery and personal spirit.
With the arguments and circumstances set up, the characters breathe. Furthermore, the play turns out to be about England as much as Czechoslovakia, as Jan returns to discover what ideals England has betrayed and lost in the 32 years since he left.
Released from the need to express ideologies, the actors blossom. Cox cannot quite suggest the intellectual agility of his position, but he’s strong on Max’s arrogant immensity. After lending watchful grace to gaunt Eleanor in the first half, Cusack transforms into Eleanor’s own frustrated grownup daughter Esme in the second. Her body loosens, her speech slows, and she makes Esme’s wistfulness truly beguiling.
The play’s romantic conclusion may be seen as a lurch into sentimentality were it not for Cusack and, most particularly, Sewell. Effective as a student about 15 years younger than his actual age, Sewell is by the end astonishingly convincing as a man 20 years older than himself. His increasingly stoic physicality alone charts the play’s seeming death of hope. It’s like watching a soul seize up in front of you, his voice subtly rising and thinning with the passing years.
Elsewhere, even an actor as good as Anthony Calf cannot save Esme’s journalist husband from Stoppard’s contemptuous caricature. And some overly deliberate perfs in smaller roles suggest director Trevor Nunn has succumbed to a bout of earnestness.
Reading the play afterwards, all sorts of carefully planted ideas and parallels make themselves plain. In an era when plays of ideas tend to be thin on the ground and wafer-thin, it seems perverse to wish this one were not thick with plots and arguments. Nunn’s valiant fidelity to the text has nevertheless resulted in a laborious first half that risks losing the audience. Thankfully, the second delivers a depth that recalls not the discussions of “The Coast of Utopia” but the humanity of “The Real Thing.”