Tom Stoppard’s play is something that will no doubt resonate with audiences in London and New York, audiences more familiar with Stoppard’s body of work, of Vaclav Havel, the events of the Prague Spring and most importantly the immediate effects of communism on their societies. Though the question that lingers for an Australian audience is: How does this play, about the artistic and personal compromises made under communism and its impact on Czechoslovakian history, relate to us?
The answer is: it doesn’t.
For most Australian’s the Cold War is viewed largely as something that happened to someone else. There were events such as the Petrov Affair but even those now seem remote or quaint. That’s not say that a play about the Cold War and communism can’t be interesting or relevant (The Malthouse’s production of The Spook tried that last year), but a play like this needs to educate first before it can entertain.
In Europe no one would have any problems understanding who Vaclav Havel is, or what Charter 77 was, but upon speaking to audience members on opening night, most people were unaware of these critical pieces of information. This miscalculation may unwittingly isolate the MTC’s core audience.
It doesn’t help that Stoppard’s writing is at times academic and a little too assumptive. Also the work doesn’t seem to offer anything truly new to its theme, which is explored better in Vaclav Havel’s own plays and in the works of other Charter 77 writers such as Ludvik Vaculik, whose A Cup of Coffee with My Interrogator says more about artistic compromise than Stoppard manages to in the entire play.
Simon Phillip’s direction is loose, at times too loose, in that it allows the actors the freedom to express themselves in their preferred acting style, but no effort has been made to tighten the cast’s performance, expression and mannerism. And it’s this looseness that ultimately brings the show undone, coupled with the fact that none of the cast seem to have a genuine understanding or empathy for their material.
The Playhouse normally a marvellous space, was critically under-utilised. The set was unusually uninspiring and didn’t make use of the natural depth that such a large stage offers. The music and multimedia, while initially captivating, ultimately overstayed their welcome, and were used primarily to mask the set changes that, for the most part, seemed unnecessary and only lengthened the running time.
At times the performance seemed better suited to the smaller more intimate Fairfax, because in such a space the play’s impact would have been heightened. The MTC is no doubt looking forward to opening its new space later this year which would have much better accommodated Rock N Roll.
In closing, it’s not that Stoppard’s latest work, the culmination of lifetime of writing on similar themes, isn’t well written but as a work for an Australian audience it remains distant and aloof, and this ultimately will limit its appeal.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents The Australian Premiere of
by Tom Stoppard
Venue: the Arts Centre Playhouse
Dates: 27 February 2008 - 29 March 2008
Times: Mon & Tue 6.30pm, Wed 1pm & 8pm, Thu & Fri 8pm (no perf 21 Mar), Sat 4pm & 8.30pm
Bookings: 1300 136 166