Theatre Review: The Continuity of Things in “Rock ‘n’ Roll”

Of vinyl, cancer and a piper who stole my heart


SAN FRANCISCO, CA: The New York Times called it “triumphant”. The Washington Post described it as “touching” and “exhilarating”. Standing in the crowded foyer of the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, the venue for the West Coast production of Tom Stoppard’s Broadway hit “Rock ‘n’ Roll”, I was prepared to be exhilarated.

The reviews had something to do with it, as did the theatre’s gilded ceilings and baroque balconies, and the elegantly-dressed gray-haired couples who glided in from bustling Geary Street for some quality weeknight entertainment.

But more than that, it was the music, and the memory I had of my 7-year old self discovering U2, Guns ‘n’ Roses and Pink Floyd in my mother’s English CD collection one fateful summer.

It was Sunday. My parents were taking their afternoon nap. I had just learnt how to use the CD player…and that was it. Rock ‘n’ roll claimed me there for life, its sheer, raw energy touching some strange chord in my child’s heart; the same way it had claimed Czech-born English playwright Tom Stoppard and his semi-autobiographical protagonist Jan during their college days in Cambridge in the 1960s, many years before me, and perhaps for more profound reasons.

“Rock ‘n’ Roll”, set in Cambridge and Prague between 1968 and 1990 – from the beginning of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia to the bloodless “Velvet Revolution” that marked Czechoslovakia’s independence – is as much Stoppard’s  tribute to the music he grew up loving as it is to the freedom movement in his native country.

In Stoppard’s play, freedom and rock ‘n’ roll are synonymous. Rock music in Czechoslovakia, in particular an iconoclastic band called “The Plastic People of the Universe”, inadvertently became the symbol of resistance against the repressive communist regime. “They’re not heretics, they’re pagans,” Jan tells us of the Plastics from his small, vinyl-stocked Prague apartment. “They’re unbribable.” The Plastics unintentionally fomented the movement that eventually brought down the Soviet-sponsored government, when members of the band were imprisoned for performing a “secret” concert in 1974.

Couple the fascinating historical backdrop with the story of a young Czech idealist and rock ‘n’ roll fanatic Jan; his dogmatically communist Cambridge professor Max; Max’s brilliant cancer-ridden Sappho-scholar wife Eleanor; their whimsical weed-smoking hippie-child and Jan’s sweetheart Esme; Jan’s habitually dissident, LP-pilfering sidekick Ferdinand; a stiff British journalist, a vivacious Czech poetry student, and even the mythical Pan; throw in electrifying dashes of the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan and U2; tie it all together with some very witty, voluble, thought-provoking dialogue,  reminiscent in parts of Oscar Wilde; top it off with a surprise autograph-signing appearance by the Plastic People themselves during the intermission, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a truly memorable show.

But the moment – the overthrow, the coup, the revolution, the part where you jump up from your seat with rage or rapture, or reach into your bag for a tissue for those involuntary tears, the part where you can’t help but gasp “Wow” at some incredible pearl of wisdom, the line that changes your life – that moment never quite happened.

The play opened with magical promise. On a spring night in 1968, young Esme is visited in her garden by a mysterious piper. She thinks he is the Greek god Pan; it is actually Syd Barrett, the “disturbed”, dark-haired genius behind legendary British rock band Pink Floyd. Perched on the garden wall, he plays her a beautiful, haunting tune, as she lies hypnotized, with her long golden curls loose about her, bathed in moonlight.

I too felt bewitched by the piper’s music, thrilling, mournful and seductive, and thought that now, something amazing was about to unfold…

But the spell is broken, for young Esme and myself, in less than a minute, when Esme’s father Max comes blustering in. He is followed by Jan, a decent, likeable young man, though entirely insipid after the Piper’s enigmatic debut. We are back in the real word for the rest of the three-hour play, at times verbose to the point of being tiresome.  Pan disappears into the shadows, and does not return, taking the simple, uncluttered beauty of his moment with him.

The “moment” almost comes back in another scene.  Jan, returned to Prague from Cambridge, is slowly coming to terms with the reality of the Soviet occupation. It is not as easy to “keep the Russians happy” as he had once thought – and he learns it the hard way. Seconds before Jan and his friend Ferdinand stroll onto the stage, a dozen LPs come falling through the air from above and smash to pieces on the ground. They belonged to Jan.

For the communist police, LPs were “dissident material”, representing “socially negative music” that should never have existed. For Jan, they were the keepers of his soul. We’ve seen how meticulously he organized them, how lovingly he handled them, how possessive he got when Ferdinand “borrowed” them without asking, caring less when Ferdinand also “borrowed” his girlfriend.  We’ve seen Jan plead with the police to spare his Syd Barrett when they ransacked his house once before. I’ve seen my own father treat the prized Neil Diamond and Elvis Presley records of his youth the same way, even in the absence of a totalitarian regime.

So when the LPs break, something within Jan breaks. It is the idealist. After years of optimistic denial, he finally decides to sign one of Ferdinand’s anti-communist petitions.

In that initial, dreadful silence, the audience is holding its breath, sharing Jan’s disbelief at what has happened, and waiting for his catharsis – for him to break down in tears, as I surely would in his shoes, and then pick up the broken pieces of his music and ideals, stronger than before.

But Jan’s reaction to this veritable soul-shattering does not go beyond an indifferent “Oh shit”, echoed almost comically by his friend Ferdinand, who then produces one remaining LP, pilfered earlier, as a consolation. A potentially tremendous emotional moment, the turning point in Jan’s character, is carelessly thrown away, either by faulty direction or just Jud Williford’s bad acting.

Fortunately, I was saved another disappointment by the intermission.

“The Plastics are here!” the ushers excitedly announced. We milled in the lobby to take a look at these heroes for ourselves, these wondrous pagan dissidents constantly alluded to in the play yet never heard, as most of their music was in Czech.

And what I saw were five, very pale, very wrinkled, very scruffy old men, with stringy white hair and rusty voices, no different in appearance from the homeless guitar-toting hippies on Telegraph Avenue, signing “The best of the Plastics” CDs for reverent, rich, elegantly-dressed American theatre-goers.  

Here they were, thousands of miles away from their home country, decades after the secret concerts, jail days, smuggled LPs and Velvet Revolution. They weren’t young, hip, or fashionable anymore. They certainly weren’t revolutionaries.

Yet people still cared about them.

That’s when it hit me. The Plastics were extraordinary, not because of the revolution they fomented, but because their music was still around. I realized that perhaps, the play wasn’t about revolution at all. It wasn’t about change, or a grand heroic upheaval that I had expected to blow me away.

“Rock ‘n’ Roll” was about things that last. It was about continuity, and something more resilient than politics, or systems, or bodies bound by time; it was about the mind, about creativity, that intangible thing that outlived death, old age, and the ephemeral tide of this world.

Max, the ardent Marxist academic, tries to argue otherwise. But even his rigid materialist beliefs are shaken to the core by his ailing wife Eleanor. Sensing the sexual chemistry between her husband and her own poetry student, the young and vivacious Lenka, and hearing Max’s pompous spiel on the merits of materialism, Eleanor (played superbly by Rene Augesen), her physical beauty eaten away by a deadly cancer, lashes out at her husband: “I am not my body”.

And at the end of the day, Eleanor wins. The cancer kills her body, but her mind lives on in Lenka, who becomes what Eleanor used to be – a brilliant Sappho scholar, and the woman who loves Max, in spite of his ego, temper and old age.

Esme the “flower-child” grows up, breaks her heart and sobers down, becoming an ordinary, fretful, 30-something single mom, but the exuberance and spunk of her youth lives on in her daughter Alice. Communism in Czechoslovakia is defeated, even though they destroyed Jan’s LPs and imprisoned the Plastics; Esme and Jan are reunited, even after twenty years of physical separation.

And as the curtains close on the Rolling Stones “You Got Me Rockin’”, I am still thinking about Syd Barrett – the haunting, unseen force in the play who captured my heart in the very first scene, and died a lonely death in Cambridge two years ago.

I came to watch “Rock ‘n’ Roll” expecting a revolution. I got something quite different. Was I exhilarated? Not exactly. Was I touched? Yes – enough to go home and download music by Syd Barrett and the Plastic People, which I had not heard before. They endured.

And in a way, that was the revolution.


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