Here is a brief plot summary:
The action moves between Cambridge and Prague, starting during the Prague spring of 1968 and concluding in the wake of the Velvet Revolution. Jan (Matthew Newton) is a student under the tutelage of Max (William Zappa), a Cambridge philosophy professor and card-carrying communist. Max's wife Eleanor (Genevieve Picot) tutors on Sappho as she slowly dies of cancer, while her daughter Esme (Chloe Armstrong) becomes a flower child and falls pregnant.
When Jan returns to his native Prague, he remains staunchly apolitical, despite the tanks in the streets, until he is drawn into dissidence by his love of rock'n'roll. Decades later, as the Iron Curtain falls, Jan is reunited with Max and his family.
The publicity shot above shows Matthew Newton as Jan.
This play has received great critical praise in Europe and the US, winning two awards:
Winner – Best Play:
2006 London Evening Standard Award
2006 London Critics’ Circle Award
Here is one example of the critical response:
Glorious… More than rock’n’ roll – I love it! Profound, moving and embarrassingly good. The familiar Stoppardian wit and intellectual exuberance are married to a depth of feeling that frequently found me in tears, and it features the best rock music of any show running in London. Energetic, raw and passionate. I was tempted to end this review by saying ‘It’s only rock’n’ roll but I like it’. In fact, it’s about much more than rock’n’ roll, and I love it. The finest play of 2006.” – The Daily Telegraph
This play was a Stoppard experience, and so was not to be missed, but for me it was a mixed blessing.
The staging is an example of the Curates Egg. The large screen at the back of the stage showing world historical events that coincided with the action in the play and which also showed some appropriate backdrop such as scenes of Cambridge and Prague, was interesting though it sometimes had to be viewed through the lights gantry that moved up and down. This was a problem from the front of the stalls, it had to be a serious problem from the balcony. Each scene was bookended by brief excerpts from rock songs and it sheds some light on my reaction to the play that I found the brief musical interludes more engaging than the play.
It is uniformly well performed by the actors, in particular by Picot whose character Eleanor delivers a powerful speech where she talks about her spirit being whole despite her body being eaten away by cancer.
I was 17 at the time of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and I still remember my disappointment and anger at the Soviet action. I also remember that the Soviet actions prompted many communists to leave the party and denounce the Soviets; one in particular, Frank Hardy, interviewed on This Day Tonight. Some communists stayed in the party, notably Eric Hobsbawm, so I was disappointed with the limited explanation of the reasons why the communist academic in the play, Max, remained a communist. The reasoning had something to do with support of the working class, though there was no evidence that this closeted intellectual had anything to do with working class people.
I know something of Communist theory and history, but the other main intellectual issue of discussion in the play, Sappho's poetry, sailed right over my head as I know nothing on that topic. Maybe I will remedy that omission some day.
It was historically logical to conclude the play with the Velvet Revolution but it was also convenient as the moral message was not confused with subsequent events in Russia and Eastern Europe such as the wars in Yugoslavia and Putin's rise to power in Russia.
I left the theatre happy to have seen the play but vaguely disappointed.