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Rock 'N' Roll review

Sarah Tierney accuses Tom Stoppard of being all talk at the Library Theatre

Published on February 25th 2009.

Rock 'N' Roll review

“Between theory and practice, there's a decent fit.” So says Max, the Cambridge academic and old-school communist, when defending his ideals to a Czechoslovakian student in Rock 'N' Roll. The problem with this production is that, like the political regime it explores, it struggles to find that 'decent' mid-ground between the two.

It begins in Cambridge in 1968 where Max is saying farewell to Jan, the aforementioned student who is about to return home after the Russian invasion of Prague. For those who need a quick refresher on Czechoslovakian history; Russia's tanks rolled in following the Prague Spring when the Czech government got a bit giddy, allowing its citizens all kinds of dangerous liberties including the abolishment of censorship and freedom of assembly.

The play explores the years between the Russian occupation and the collapse of communism in 1989. The drama is divided between Max's Cambridge home, where his wife is dying of cancer, and Prague where Jan (played by Graeme Hawley) is experiencing the trials of life under Communism.

When he first arrives home, Jan is hopeful that the Russians won't completely eradicate the Czech government's dream of 'socialism with a human face'. After all, The Beach Boys are given permission to play there, so the new rulers can't be that bad.

Rock 'N' Roll is about freedom – or the lack of it – and Stoppard presents this particular type of music as its ultimate expression. Jan sees his favourite Czech band, the Plastic People of the Universe, as the embodiment of freedom because they don't fight against the Communist regime; they just ignore it. What better way to undermine an oppressor than with a disinterested shrug?

But in a communist society, you can't just disengage. The Plastics are arrested and Jan goes from cynicism, to rebellion, to a downtrodden acceptance his confined, controlled existence. He wants “the freedom to be left alone” – it doesn't exist in Prague.

Back in Cambridge, Max is longing for the opposite. “To be human is to be joined together,” he says, yet his communist beliefs isolate him from others. Hilton McRae plays Max with gusto. His performance, alongside that of Cate Hamer who plays both his wife and grown-up daughter, are excellent.

If the play had curbed its ambitions at exploring different views on communism and liberty, it might have worked well for me. An enjoyable sub-plot which had Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett as an incarnation of the Greek god Pan built on the themes of disengagement and freedom through music. But there were also discussions on all manner of other issues, from Sappho to the nature of conciousness, and I struggled to see all the disparate strands as a coherent whole.

Of course, Stoppard probably didn't want his play to be that simple: life is chaotic so why shouldn't drama reflect that? However, life is also acted out, rather than discussed at great length, repeatedly. There's an awful lot of theory in this play in the form of heated debates between academics, friends and relatives, but there's not a lot of practice – the big events in the characters' lives are rarely shown on stage.

This is fine if you enjoy extended political discussions inter-cut with academic analysis of ancient Greek texts, but wearying if you don't.

Rock N Roll received outstanding reviews when it was staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London, so there are undoubtedly plenty of people who would disagree with this write-up. Ultimately, you'll have to see it for yourself to find out whether you find it invigorating and uplifting, or unwieldy and confused.

Tom Stoppard's Rock 'N' Roll. Library Theatre, Manchester. Until 14 March. 0161 236 7110. www.librarytheatre.com

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