Saturday, December 22, 2007
Rock 'n' Roll - A Spiritless Revolution
When I am not a fan of whatever Tom Stoppard's latest play is, I am usually still an admirer. Rock 'n' Roll follows the friendship of two men, one a British professor in love with the possibilities of Communism and the other a Czech student who lives with it. It follows the progress of their lives and their ideals through the Rock 'n' Roll of the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. It is, like many of Stoppard's more recent plays, an attempt to make theater of ideas and it is his least successful attempt to date. I saw the ambitious, passionate The Coast of Utopia - a nine hour trilogy that examined the revolution of Russian society in the 1860s - 1910s. It too was problematic but delivered a dramatic arc. It's historical sweep was extraordinary and yet one could really be touched by the people involved. That was partly the function of a magnificent, spare production and some beautiful performances, particularly Billy Cruddup's and Ethan Hawke's. Arcadia, though full of intellectual characters, remains one of the most beautiful plays I've ever seen.
Rock 'n' Roll not only less successfully mines the hearts of its characters for some shred of pathos, it suffers from a superficial production and largely empty performances. With the exception of Brian Cox who is always a pleasure to watch on stage or film, the acting is characterized more by hard work and short-hand tricks than what one might call a soul. It's sad, because there are some good people in it - Sinead Cusack first plays Esme, a Greek professor (married to Brian Cox's character, Max) ill with cancer and later plays that professor's daughter. While I have seen Cusack do some lovely work, this character's inner life, and there is plenty to mine here, fails to bubble to the surface. This actress is unfortunately left to feeble tricks to try to convince us that she feels anything at all. The writing isn't kind to her - it is very affected when she should really be allowed an outburst and asks her to turn on a dime. Rufus Sewell, who I have also enjoyed many times (although this is the first time I have seen him on stage) overplays the enthusiasm of the younger version of Jan, his character, to such a degree that he seems almost pathological. He also seems to be tearing his throat to shreds with all the hollering he's doing, so hoarse does his voice sound. As his character mellows with age, Sewell is able to calm down and show us more about who lives inside this mass of nervous shuffling and shambling. He does seem to have an inner life the whole time, it's only the fact that he believes he needs to do so much to make sure we see it that ruined my being able to be moved by it for the play's first half.
This over-the-top demonstrating by nearly the entire cast of everything that happens is exhausting to watch, but it is not satisfying and for that I fault Trevor Nunn's clunky production. The episodic structure of the plays, moving by years, does not seem to me to demand constant dropping of the curtain and long excerpts of rock 'n' roll with projections mentioning the artists' names, the studio. The music needs to be a part of the production, sure, it is such a part of Jan's life and such an expression to him of what it means to be "free." I would guess that these long pauses allow for all of the wig changes and set shifts, another aspect of the production that the play and its performers would have been less burdened without. I really didn't need Esme to show me her surgical scars done as obvious makeup effects over a body stocking. The point is how she feels about them and that she shows them to her husband. Our seeing them didn't make the production more involving or more real, rather it made it less so. And that seemed to be the problem with the entire production. Jan as an older man didn't need gray hair, Sewell already nice a few subtle things with body and voice to suggest the age of his character and that would have been sufficient. In fact, seeing these humans and their space transform would have expressed far more in theatrical language about the nature of revolution than all the film-flammery of this production. Nunn failed to trust the talents of its actors to create a personal revolution and the intelligence of its audience to experience one. The production was burdened by soulless materialism when it could have been transformed by the spirits of those who worked in it.