Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Continuing the merry trend of importing whatever’s been a hit on Broadway or the West End from the past several years, CanStage kicked off its current season with Tom Stoppard’s latest effort: Rock’n’Roll. In this show, a decades-spanning epic, Stoppard tells the story of a Cambridge University family who become involved with a visiting scholar from the former Czechoslovakia. It opens shortly after the Prague Spring of 1968 and finishes up at a Rolling Stones concert just after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. The history of communism in Czechoslovakia is interwoven with the history of rock’n’roll music, as well as Czech scholar Jan’s interest in civil disobedience (and Czech rock band the Plastic People of the Universe), Marxist Cambridge professor Max’s family life, and the mental decline of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett. If you think that sounds like rather a lot of things to be jammed into a single play, you are absolutely right. In fact, it’s far too many.
The first act centres on a young Jan returning to Prague from Cambridge and discussing the problems of his country’s communist regime with his friend Ferdinand, as well as on Max’s home life with teenaged daughter Esme and cancer-striken wife Eleanor. In the second act, the action revolves around an older Jan returning to Cambridge, where an adult Esme has a teenage daughter of her own, who happens to be obsessed with a declining Syd Barrett. Of course, it’s all much more complicated than that, with scads of supporting characters, scene-change projections, rolling set pieces and visions of the god Pan. Unfortunately, Stoppard (along with several notable critics) seems to have confused “complicated” with “good.” Creaking along for an interminable three hours, this is one of the most outrageously boring plays by a major playwright we’ve ever seen. Donna Feore’s production is definitely creaky, and the broad-strokes design is a bit of a mess, but the real problem is Stoppard’s tedious, tedious script. If a bunch of men lecturing each other about communism for several hours sounds like a good time to you, look no further. If, however, you’re interested in a compelling narrative or character development, you’ve come to the wrong place.
What’s most frustrating about Rock’n’Roll is how good it might have been. Any show helmed by Kenneth Welsh and Fiona Reid has a good head-start, and it’s the time these two actors share that brings the show any real moments of captivating drama. In the first act, Reid’s Eleanor was a breath of fresh air every moment she was onstage. Dying of breast cancer, she repeatedly tells her husband to stop yammering on about communism and start relating like a human being to something real and important happening in their lives—an appeal one wishes Stoppard had heard himself. Unfortunately, Eleanor is dead before the curtain comes down on Act One, and Reid must spend Act Two playing grown-up Esme, a part she isn’t nearly so suited for, and the only interesting piece of human drama in the show is completely gone.
Rock’n’Roll runs until Oct 24.