Rock 'n' RollLeft - Matthew Newton. Cover - Matthew Newton & William Zappa. Photos - Jeff Busby

‘So Matthew Newton is more than the progeny of two pretty faces!’ Now I’ve said it! Apologies, I had to start with that line since it popped into my head as was leaving the theatre and refused to go away. Newton, NIDA graduate and lad-about-town, gives what’s known in the trade as a ‘kick-ass’ performance as the activist Czech student, Jan, in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘N’ Roll, currently playing at the Sydney Theatre.

Jan is a character that requires Newton to grow from a cocky student (studying at Cambridge when the tanks roll into Prague in late 1968), living out the best of his adult years back home under the thumb of political repression (1970s-80s), to a seasoned adult (briefly back in Cambridge) who has lived and seen more than most and yet still, in the end, is able to show love.

There's some other top-gear performances.

As Max, the unyielding communist Cambridge academic, William Zappa turns in yet another superb performance. Do we have anyone else as good at vividly activating characters of high intelligence with complex moral interiors? I’m thinking here of Zappa as Tom Sergeant, the Thatcherite small businessman, in David Hare’s Skylight. And more recently, as Martin, ‘the greatest architect of his generation’ with an unusual sexual predilection, in Albee’s The Goat or Who is Sylvia? And not to forget Zappa’s comic expertise, as we witnessed in all its virtuosic glory, in Bell Shakespeare’s The Government Inspector just last year.

Genevieve Picot also attracted a lot of positive comments for her dual roles: as Eleanor, Max’s dying wife, and – in the second half – as Esme, their daughter.

For those who travel (amidst opening-nighters now on a regular basis), a few were clinging at interval to Sinead Cusack’s London/New York rendition, but most had given way by the end of the play. Picot’s performance grew exponentially as the story evolved, and especially when she returned in the second half as her own daughter. There is a massive set-piece scene for Picot in the first half where, as Eleanor, she rips at Max for his insensitivity to her personal suffering as he bangs on and on yet again about ideas. For a performer of Cusack’s/Picot’s ability, it is a torch song in prose. I liked what Picot did, very eloquent and upsetting. If there was a problem (ie. allegedly not up to Cusack’s mark), I think all Picot has to do is get on top of the ‘not-entirely-responsive’ Sydney Theatre acoustic.

Easier said than done. We have a problem Houston and the STC knows it. Beautiful and user-friendly as this Andrew Andersons’ designed theatre is, an aural dampness muffles quiet moments of high emotion. This was exposed in Cheek by Jowl’s visiting production of Othello, where Iago’s loitering soliloquies could barely be heard.

One other performance deserves special comment: Danielle Cormack’s Lenka. Making what appears to be her main-stage debut in this country, Australia’s gain appears to be New Zealand’s loss. Lenka begins the play as a somewhat more flippant Czech student, who stays on when Jan goes back. As a student, she tries to hit on Max while Eleanor is out of the room, and like most wives Eleanor picks up the scent of ‘another woman’ – coming out with a response so frank it takes your breath away.

In tossing in the phrase ‘until after I’m dead’ into this conversation, Eleanor is not just being dramatic. Stoppard is flourishing his craft skills. The phrase, in scriptwriting terms, is ‘a plant’; and it blooms in the closing scenes. Lenka, at the end of the play, is a wise and mature woman who still holds a fondness for Max, now a grumpy and somewhat frail widower.

As always with Stoppard the themes are big – but mainly it’s a study of the various social freedoms and restrictions that go hand-in-hand with both communism and democracy/capitalism. Not since Shaw have we had a playwright as good at arguing convincingly for both sides. More sides if there are any. His great gift is transforming these battles of ideas into theatrical set pieces your reasonably seasoned playgoer can put together.

What puts this play into a special class, for Stoppard, is its big heart. In the end the surviving characters land sweetly into formations of camaraderie and consolation, healing of old wounds and the fresh blossomings of romantic love – reminiscent of a Shakespeare comedy.

Responses to the play on opening night were incredibly varied. Some were not prepared to forgive Stoppard for abandoning his country of birth in its time of need (1968 or any time after) and were not prepared to offer him the let-out clause that Jan on stage represents. Some were not prepared to swallow Stoppard’s homage to liberal freedoms either, when he so publicly supported Margaret Thatcher.

He had his reasons and put them down in print. Has he any regrets? This play suggests ‘possibly’, though he is quick to disparage all forms of social organization that prohibit the freedom of creative expression. Thatcher, Stoppard would argue, never sent an artist to jail for saying they hated her, much less because she thought that one day they just ‘might start thinking’ about hating her. And in his view Leftists in power are as often likely to discourage dissent, if, on the evidence of the 20th century – more likely.

Some on opening night complained that Stoppard had bitten off more than he could chew. Well only Beckett truly mastered ‘less is more’, so that was an odd complaint, even if it denies Rock ‘N’ Roll the formal status of ‘masterpiece’.

Do we really want to damn Stoppard for putting before us a banquet of ideas concerning the greatest political and social forces to shape the last century? Equally: communism and rock ‘n’ roll!

What appears in the play to the uninformed (like me) a typically Stoppardian extravagance - a Prague-based rock band called The Plastic People of the Universe – is in fact a precise and literal reference. The debate over freedom of artistic expression (whatever the prevailing political hegemony) is played out through this band’s story and Jan’s (fictive) involvement in it.

Avoiding politics per say, the ‘Plastics’, allegedly performed only for ‘freedom’ in the most generalized sense: yet this was threatening enough for concerts to be banned and audiences to be bashed. They were cheeky: outlawed from performing, they gave ‘lectures’ on Andy Warhol and examples of the music of Velvet Underground were demonstrated. In the end they were crushed for no better reason than they refused to submit voluntarily.

The battle for freedom was hard won. Many spent years in jail or performing menial duties at a great distance from their true areas of skill. Jan is among those who suffer. Not surprisingly, after the collapse of the communist regime, he returns to Cambridge a quieter, if not altogether diminished, man. It’s all very hearty as Max and Jan meet up and make up after so much time and strife. But as Lenka wisely reminds Jan, legislated democracy, the foundation of British life, is not always what it’s cracked up to be either. 

“Don’t come back Jan,”
she advises. “This place has lost its nerve. They put something in the water since you were here. It’s a democracy of obedience. They’re frightened to use their minds in case their minds tell them heresy. They apologise for history. They apologise for good manners. They apologise for difference. It’s a contest of apology. You’ve got your country back. Why would you change it for one that’s fucked for fifty years at least.” (Fortunately it will only take Kevin Rudd a few press releases and the odd conference to disentangle Howard’s disheartening legacy.)

The play is complex, but incredibly engaging. Who else but Stoppard can take us through such sweeping thought processes, all the while ‘entertaining us’ with such sparring wit and good humour. And in this rare instance a touch of romance.

I admit I found Stoppard’s Arcadia - directed for the Sydney Theatre Company by Gale Edwards in 1995  with Helen Morse, John Gaden, Michelle Doake, Paul English, Paul Goddard, Jane Harders - a more lucid and distilled experience. But how much credit for that goes to those involved? Every now and again all the parts of the theatrical puzzle just fall in to place – and the Arcadia we saw in Sydney was such a case.

Given the controversial, and possibly unanswerable questions raised in Rock ‘N’ Roll, a fair response, I think, would be to at least credit Stoppard with laying so much out before us to consider. Rock 'N' Roll is an amazing banquet. Make of it what we may, we will all dine at the table from different angles.

Director Simon Phillips does a very good job with what is clearly a massive assignment; and it’s a significant step up and away from the recent muddle of The Mad Woman of Chaillot, and the even more hideous Putnam County Spelling Bee (though the fault there was in audiences liking it!)

Stephen Curtis’ ‘rock venue’ location is one of his best, with massive lighting rigs rising and falling between settings of elegant simplicity: the Cambridge garden, a Prague street. The audio visual and sound components to the production (Josh Burns & Kerry Saxby) are stunning with extraordinary archival footage, extraordinarily edited, blasted onto almost the entire back wall; while the rock music score pays homage to the best of the best of the era. Not supporting material – this is what the play is actually about. That it was ultimately rock ‘n’ roll (art), not political wheeler-dealing at the highest level, which rescued the Czech and Slovak Republics.

(PS: grab a program if you’ve got a few extra bucks in yr pocket, it’s loaded with fascinating supporting material.)

FYI: Below are reviews of the London production which toured to New York, starring Rufus Sewell as Mathew Newton and Sinead Cusack as Genevieve Picot. We’ve all got to keep up with today’s foyer chat!!

New York Times Review»
Curtain Up – London & New York Reviews»

Sydney Theatre Company presents the Melbourne Theatre Company production of
Rock ‘n’ Roll
By Tom Stoppard

Venue: Sydney Theatre, 22 Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
Season: 11 April to 17 May 2008 (Opens 14 April)
Previews: from 11 April (Opens 14 April)  
Captioned performances: Friday 25 April at 8pm & Wednesday 30 April at
Audio Described performance: Saturday 3 May at 2pm
Times: Monday 6.30pm, Tuesday – Saturday 8.00pm
Matinees: Wednesday 1.00pm (except Wednesday 7 May 12.15pm), Saturday
Evenings - Adult A Res $77 / B Res $67 – Concession A Res $62 / B Res $52
Matinees - Adult A Res $68 / B Res $56 - Concession A Res $56 / B Res $46
Preview - $50 / Under 30s $29
Bookings: STC Box Office (02) 9250 1777 / Ticketek 132 849 /


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