Where Did It All Go Wrong? European History Gets a Make-Over in an Uneasy Marriage of Politics and Pop

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Royal Court Theatre, London SW1

To appreciate Tom Stoppard's new play you need a firm grasp of the history of communism and an anorak's knowledge of late 1960s music. Rock'n'Roll manages, just, to pull off an overview of the turbulent politics of Czechoslovakia 1968-1990, as witnessed by the rock journalist Jan (Rufus Sewell).

Events in Prague are played off against a history of 20th-century British Marxist activity centred on Max (Brian Cox), an ageing, irascible communist and Cambridge academic. In addition, Stoppard juggles references to the October and velvet revolutions, by way of Stalin, Dubcek, Gorbachev and, of course, Vaclav Havel, to whom the play is dedicated.

Stoppard has dealt with postwar Czechoslovakian politics before, in his bouncy 1970s television comedy Professional Foul. Now, however, our leading playwright, in elder statesman mode, has put the politics before the drama--and it seems as if the director, Trevor Nunn, hasn't had the nerve to complain

As Jan, Sewell delivers a knock-out performance, going from long-haired idealist to prison-cropped cynic and back again. He is an actor who once looked as if he was bound for Hollywood. America's loss is our gain. He manages the rapid changes of both accent and hair-length with conviction, and manfully copes with the achingly long political expositions that dog the first half. Stoppard is so busy presenting his native Czechoslovakia as a test case for the failure of communism that, after about 40 minutes of speechifying, you stop wondering where socialism went wrong and start wondering where this play went wrong.

The work's inspiration/muse (the meaning of these words provides a typical Stoppardian diversion) is the real-life story of a long-forgotten Czech band, the Plastic People of the Universe. The long hair and anti-establishment stance of the PPU was a big deal in Czech resistance circles, and they paid for it with their freedom. Yet, provided with little more than two-dimensional descriptions, I was left feeling pretty tepid about their fate. More arresting musical references come from the chronological insertion of anthems by the Floyd, Dylan and the Stones, blasted out over a blackened stage and tracking the events of the play. …