I recently saw Tom Stoppard’s play “Rock `n` Roll” at the Huntington Theatre. The play is set in Cambridge, England and Prague, Czechoslovakia. It roughly follows the life of Jan for twenty years, from 1968 (the year of the Prague Spring), when he decides to return to his native Prague from England, to 1990 one year after the Velvet Revolution. This is almost the opposite course from Stoppard’s life whose family fled Czechoslovakia when it was invaded by the Nazis during the World War II and never went back.
Jan is a rock `n` roll (duh!) aficionado, studying in Cambridge, England and his mentor Max is a Marxist academic philosopher. There is lot of discussion about the potential of communism and its ultimate failure. In theory communism sounded good, but in practice it isolated people, restricted their rights through unjustified persecutions. Jan thought that life in Prague would be good, but unfortunately for him the Prague Spring was short lived and the country was invaded by the Russians. By returning to Prague Jan basically gave up some things. His beloved vinyl records get destroyed by government agents and he’s forced to work at a bakery, things that would not happen in England even under Thatcher’s government.
Jan plays music from the Pink Floyd, the Doors, Bob Dylan, Velvet Underground and the Rolling Stones, the same music we hear during scene changes. He makes fun of the Beach Boys. His friend constantly asks him to sign some kind of petition (e.g. for freedom of expression). Then Jan discovers this cool Czech band the Plastic People of the Universe. Their music at some point is found to be non-conformist by the regime, so their singer is thrown in jail and has his hair cut. Of course when all ends well and they are ready to embark on a tour to the West Jan basically declares them as sell outs. To be honest I found Jan mildly irritating, because he was mainly talking like he was drunk (although in some scenes he was supposed to be drunk).
Jan’s obsession with rock ‘n’ roll is the constant factor of his life: regardless of regimes the music is always there. Jan is not really a dissident, but his musical taste in rock n roll makes him one. Rock `n` roll is not only about music, it’s about a free lifestyle too.
Rene Augesen did a brilliant job as Eleanor. Eleanor is Max’s wife and they are parents to Esme, the girl who Jan had always had a crush on, and ended up together in Prague at a Rolling Stones concert.
The play was solid, fun, and unfortunately some of the jokes and the references got lost in the crowd, like jokes about the “Ahoy!” greeting and the Czech navy, references about Thatcher and Syd Barrett, and references about the Eastern Block. The stage design was interesting, and one of the memorable moments was when Jan and his friend Ferdinand are walking in the street under Jan’s flat, the ceiling opens and Jan’s broken vinyl records fall down (the government agents destroyed his records and throw them out of the window).
In the beginning of the play when the characters were talking about Cambridge, I thought they were talking about Cambridge, MA. And then my next thought was “what’s with the British accents?” and then it was, oh, yeahhh, Cambridge, England!!!!
After the play I took the T home and people were talking about the play, and their comments were generally positive. The apex of confusion was this couple, I’d guess in their late 40s. The guy was confused about Eleanor and her daughter Esme: Esme in later years is played by the actress who earlier played Eleanor, so he didn’t really understand when the change in character occurred. And then the woman wondered (with a British accent): “And what was that all about Syd Barrett? Is he a real person???” Her partner did not respond in the affirmative and my chuckle was getting wider.