Stop press! This week I’m writing two drama columns for The Wall Street Journal, one today and the other on Friday as usual. Today’s special column is devoted in its entirety to the American premiere of Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll:
Part of what makes “Rock ‘n’ Roll” a tough nut is that it’s really two related plays that are woven together like a double helix and stuffed into a single giant-sized package. Both begin in 1968, the year when idealistic Czech reformers tugged too hard on their reins and were ruthlessly slapped down by the Kremlin, which sent Soviet tanks rolling into Prague. Play No. 1 is about Max (Brian Cox), a left-wing Cambridge don of a certain age who has remained faithful to the Communist Party and its long-deferred dream of a Marxist utopia even though he’s been “kicked in the guts by nine tenths of anything you can tell me about Soviet Russia.” Play No. 2 is about Jan (Rufus Sewell), Max’s prize pupil, a seemingly cool-headed realist who returns to his native Czechoslovakia in the hope of saving “socialism with a human face,” then finds himself swept up in the spring tide of resistance to Soviet rule.
Philosophical materialism is the tie that binds the two halves of “Rock ‘n’ Roll” (as well as making it a quasi-epilogue to “The Coast of Utopia”). Like all good Marxists, Max rejects the notion that man has a soul separate and distinct from his body: “The brain is a biological machine for thinking. If it wasn’t for the merely technical problem of understanding how it works, we could make one out of–beer cans.” But his wife Eleanor (portrayed with searing passion by Sinead Cusack), who is dying by inches of cancer, knows better: “They’ve cut, cauterized and zapped away my breasts, my ovaries, my womb, half my bowel, and a nutmeg out of my brain, and I am undiminished, I’m exactly who I’ve always been. I am not my body. My body is nothing without me….I don’t want your ‘mind’ which you can make out of beer cans. Don’t bring it to my funeral. I want your grieving soul or nothing.”…
“Rock ‘n’ Roll” is the first Tom Stoppard play I’ve seen that felt too long, perhaps because the scenes set in Czechoslovakia too often suggest a cross between a historical pageant and a finger-wagging lecture on the horrors of Communism….
Yet even so, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” succeeds in touching the heart while stimulating the mind, and in Ms. Cusack, who plays the tricky double role of Eleanor and her daughter Esme with awe-inspiring aplomb, it has a star worthy of its best pages. I wasn’t altogether satisfied by it, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world–and neither should you.
So you want to read the whole thing? Buy a copy of this morning’s Journal–or get smart and go here to subscribe to the Online Journal, which will give you one-stop access to all of the Journal‘s arts coverage, my drama column included. (If you’re already a subscriber to the Online Journal, the column is here.)