Midway through “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Jan, the reluctant dissident at the heart of Tom Stoppard’s new play, says, “There are no stories in Czechoslovakia. We have an arrangement with ourselves not to disturb the appearances. We aim for inertia. We mass-produce banality. We’ve had no history since ’68, only pseudo-history.” Having left his native Czechoslovakia in diapers when his parents fled the Nazis in 1938, Stoppard now imagines how his return might have gone. In this unwieldy reflection on politics, poetics, rock music as expression of personal liberty and a whole lot else, the playwright creates his own pseudo-history by sending Jan back from cozy Cambridge to face Soviet occupation in Prague.
The rock ‘n’ roll-loving prodigal’s dissident status is earned less by activism than by belief in the power of outsider music — notably Czech band the Plastic People of the Universe, whose underground appearances sparked police violence and a ban on performing. Unlike some of his more hardline friends, Jan resists the politicization of his beliefs, convinced he can exist peacefully within the system of state control. But he gradually gets chewed up and spat out by it.
That 20-year process — spanning the Prague Spring of 1968 through the Velvet Revolution and fall of old-school communism two decades later — is charted in the meticulously calibrated changes in actor Rufus Sewell’s countenance, in his bearing and in his eyes, leaving him a man in many ways diminished yet still able to be amazed and amused by life’s ironies.
Among Stoppard’s sweeter romantic indulgences is the fact that one of those ironies is a late-in-life love with a semi-lost woman whom Jan remembers as a stoned hippie with a crush on him.
Would that the intellectually overburdened play’s journey — or those of its mostly unengaging characters — had half the humanity packed into Sewell’s wonderful performance. “Rock ‘n’ Roll” commands admiration simply by virtue of being unafraid to make demands on its audience, and it has an affecting central figure in Jan. But in order to get to 90 minutes of reasonably satisfying emotional drama, it first force-feeds you another 90 minutes of stodgy political-science backgrounding, made more cumbersome by awkward cross-cutting between Cambridge and Prague. (The latter aspect is not helped by Robert Jones’ clunky set, with its pedestrian use of a central turntable.)
Jan is introduced in 1968 as a young political scholar compelled by the Soviet invasion to return to his native Prague. His irascible British professor, Max (Brian Cox), is a diehard Marxist who dismisses Jan’s support for Communist reformer Alexander Dubcek as misguided. Both Max’s belief in a collective socialist system and Jan’s in individual freedom are steadily eroded by disillusionment as the play follows its lumpy progression.
There’s some overlap here with Stoppard’s last work, “The Coast of Utopia,” a nine-hour trilogy both more sprawling and more fluid that also concerned the failure of idealism. But “Rock ‘n’ Roll” is less melancholy; it considers the way we think, feel, grieve and believe, using music as the central, overstretching metaphor for revolution, protest, liberation and emotional survival.
The first act is an unrewarding slog. Director Trevor Nunn pushes the actors toward emphatic heavyhandedness, particularly Cox’s Max, an overdetermined character who’s all bullying bluster, and Sinead Cusack as his wife Eleanor. A classics professor slowly succumbing to cancer, Eleanor provides one of the play’s more obvious metaphors for decay, while her Sappho tutorials on Eros as an uncontrollable spirit present further opposition to Max’s intransigence.
But Stoppard provides no impetus to care about these characters, who serve merely to articulate various points on the political, ideological and philosophical spectrum without ever coming alive as people. Despite this clearly being a personal work about the playwright’s own deep interests, it’s an oddly ungiving one for much of its running time. The second act, in which Cusack steps into the role of Eleanor’s grown daughter Esme, moves away from the political debate forum and into more emotional territory.
As the action shifts back to Cambridge through much of the 1980s, Stoppard’s observations of Thatcher’s Britain — “a democracy of obedience” — acquire more of an incisive sting than the familiar depictions of restricted freedom, overbearing government control, treachery and betrayal in Eastern Europe.
Marooned between combative father Max and headstrong daughter Alice (Alice Eve) but in most respects discarded, Esme becomes a poignant figure and gives Cusack some belated texture to play.
But the most consistent involvement comes via Jan. Presenting a touchingly arrhythmic figure despite a lifetime of passionate immersion in music, and balancing his intelligence with a disarming hint of social awkwardness, Sewell deftly shapes the character’s path from passivity through persecution to rehabilitation and unexpected, somewhat whimsical deliverance.
Jan embodies the bittersweet view of rock ‘n’ roll as a language of underground political protest whose once-trenchant social significance has given way to meaningless commercialization, though its liberating power somehow endures.
Stoppard and Nunn punctuate the 20-year chronicle with an iconic soundtrack to illustrate that rock transcends politics, dipping into the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd (drug-addicted founding member Syd Barrett serves as another breakdown metaphor), the Grateful Dead and the Beach Boys, and on through U2 and the Cure. But despite moments of lingering feeling in the second act and a generous sprinkling of the witty instant aphorisms audiences have come to expect from Stoppard, overall the words don’t summon the same power as the music.