Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Rock n Roll, Library Theatre

The Library Theatre, St Peter's Square, until March 14

Czech born playwright Tom Stoppard’s latest play is a curious mixture of highbrow and popular culture, intellectualism and an unshakeable belief in Rock n Roll. We all know that popular music at its best has been a form of rebellion against the time in which it was made, yet the heavy handed manner with which Stoppard treats the subject in Rock n Roll doesn’t quite work.

Taking place over the course of 22 years, from 1968 to 1990, Rock n Roll charts the friendship of two friends. Graeme Hawley’s Jan, a Czech brought up in England, is studying at Cambridge for the summer and befriends Max (played by Hilton McRae) an ageing academic who was born in the same year as the October Revolution of 1917 and refuses to give up his membership of the British Communist Party.

Although at first they seem similar, the play documents the way Jan and Max’s lives diverge and are shaped by the different events that befall them. We meet Jan, a pop music anorak, as he is just about to return to Prague to ‘save rock n roll’ following the Russian invasion of the city. As far as Max is concerned, given a choice between locking rock musicians up in prison or giving them loads of money, he knows which he’d prefer.

The action takes place between Max’s Cambridge home and Jan’s apartment in Prague. The different cities are flicked between like records in a jukebox, and are accompanied by music from each year, from the sinister snarl of the Velvet Underground to the sunshine pop of the Beach Boys.

Jan’s idea of rebellion is to sit back and do nothing: in his eyes, to grow your hair is to rebel against the dominant norms of the time. Though ostensibly a socialist, his idea of freedom is very different to Max’s. Max’s idea of freedom is for the workers to have the ‘freedom to have a chance’. Jan merely desires ‘freedom to be left alone’. Jan rails against heroism, reasoning heretics merely reaffirm the beliefs of the bearers of the faith. As long as he has his impressive array of American and English records, he’s happy to sit inside whilst freedoms are gradually eroded outside.

Jan’s subversive heroes are the Czech band Plastic People of the Universe, who make ‘socially negative music’ in the eyes of the authorities. The Plastic People, according to Jan, epitomise the rock n roll ideal by biting the head off a chicken, Western rock style.

Jan is contrasted with his friend Ferdinand, modelled on Vaclav Havel, first president of the Czech Republic. Ferdinand is an intellectual who pays Jan regular visits with a never ending supply of petitions against the imprisonment of those who speak out against the system, including members of dissident groups such as Charter 77. To Jan, these are empty gestures.

Of course, it turns out that neither is entirely right. Rock music can subvert the system, or at the very least inspire others to fight for change. Jan is also wrong about being free from state interference. As the high ideals that shape the start of the play give way to pessimism and hardship, Jan describes the police brutality against those who challenge the state by attending rock concerts. When Jan himself is arrested and has his head shaved in prison, it's one of Ferdinand's petitions that gets him out.

The main problem with Rock n Roll is there are too many different ideas to take in, and ideological discussion takes precedence over character. None of the characters quite seem real, more composites of stereotypes: snotty intellectuals and stroppy teenagers sitting round smoking weed. One character even trots out the expression ‘If you can remember the sixties you weren’t really there’.

A satire of the newspaper industry and the way in which the world around us is presented works a little better, though: the real villains of the play are the press hounds who sniff around for the whichever side of the Velvet Revolution will be most unit shifting and pick the carcass of a fallen from grace Syd Barrett. Max’s continued endorsement of press censorship, the idea of curtailing freedom of expression as the people don’t know what’s best for them, is the most revealing admission that he knows his ideological position is insecure.

It’s a shame that the most fully realised characters in the play are the women, yet they fade into the background, playing second fiddle to the men around them. Cate Hamer’s Eleanor, Max’s classicist scholar wife, is killed off by cancer well before the end of the play. A monologue in which she wails “I am not my body, my body is not me”, could be an advertisement for the feminist movement. This says a lot about the failure of Marxism and communism in the modern world - there were other issues to replace it such as feminism and anti-racism. Leila Crerar’s Lenka is another passionate female academic who is the most engaging character in the play, but again she is allowed little chance to develop, used only as a foil to criticise Max.

The play is most poignant as an elegy for Syd Barrett, who died during the London run. It starts with Syd, a young and handsome pop star, playing pipes to Max’s daughter Esme like a modern day Pan, a reference to Pink Floyd's first album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the only full album Barrett appeared on. By the end of the play Syd, is a balding recluse who has been befriended by Esme’s daughter Alice.

Just as Pink Floyd's music became duller and duller without Barrett, the musical timeline Rock n Roll takes us though gets worse and worse as the play progresses and we move into the eighties bombast of Guns n Roses and U2.

We end in up a consumerist Britain where the masses have become desensitized, and are too numbed to what’s going on around them to want to rebel anymore. When Max reveals he considered voting for Thatcher for a moment it doesn’t come as a real surprise. After all, what could be more conservative than steadfastly clinging to outdated beliefs while the world changes around you?

Everything concludes very cosily with Max and Lenka getting together and Jan and Esme finally realising their long held feelings for each other. It might have been designed as a play about radicalism, but Stoppard reinforces the conservatism of those involved. Rock n Roll ends at a 1990 concert by the Rolling Stones, hardly new or challenging music.

I went to see this play for free with this scheme for under 26 year olds:

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