Rock ’n’ Roll culminates in the Rolling Stones’ triumphant 1990 concert at Prague’s Strahov Stadium, one-time home of Communist rallies under a regime that deemed rock and roll “socially negative music.” But it is not the Stones who represent the liberating outlaw spirit of rock and roll in the play. What turns Jan, who at first condemns the efforts of his Czech-dissident friends as “moral exhibitionism,” into one of the signers of Charter 77, a manifesto for human rights, is the persecution of the Czech rock band the Plastic People of the Universe, who were formed in the immediate wake of the Soviet takeover and named for a Frank Zappa song. The real-life drama of the Plastics — who refused to be bullied into changing their haircuts or their Velvet Underground–inspired music, lost their license to perform, and were eventually tried and imprisoned — is what makes Jan (who also does jail time) join future president Havel and other intellectuals in public protest. “It’s not just the music,” sums up the rock-loving PhD, “it’s the oxygen.”
Rock ’n’ Roll does not flow as effortlessly as Arcadia, which has the advantage of its parallel stories sharing the same English-country-estate setting in 1809 and the present. In Robert Jones’s impressive set design, a small revolve that serves for the book-and-record-strewn interiors is surrounded by a big picture that transforms from leafy suburban Cambridge, with the college skyline in the background, to the grimy gray byways of Prague, with Jan’s towering record collection the only bright spot. These transitions take some mechanistic doing, but no matter. The scene changes are covered by the blasts of classic rock from Dylan to the Dead to Pink Floyd (with and without Syd) to the Plastics, with the who, what, and where-recorded in dancing graphics played across a scrim. Stoppard is very specific about what we hear (“Blackout and ‘Welcome to the Machine’ by Pink Floyd, three minutes and 50 seconds in”), and the musical bridges are loud and exhilarating.
Jan is played by Rufus Sewell with a marvelous mix of ferocity — which manifests itself in political arguments with Jan’s Czech friend Ferdinand, some of them rooted in actual public exchanges between Havel and such luminaries as Milan Kundera and Ludvík Vaculík — and delight, whether at the music or when talking about the music. (When Ferdinand first presents him with a petition, Jan’s response is to ask, as if proffering hors d’œuvre, “Fugs or Doors?”) The character grows from enthusiastic, long-haired lecturer to a man politically beat up and wised up (jailed as a “parasite,” he emerges to work in a Czech bakery for 12 years) without losing the capacity for unbridled pagan joy that is at the root of his rock-and-roll soul.
But Sewell is just the ventricle of the emotional heart of the play; its auricle is the masterful Sinéad Cusack, who plays Max’s moribund wife in the first act and their drifting daughter — the flower child of the opening scene, gone wistfully to seed — in the second. As crisply witty, cancer-besieged classics scholar Eleanor, whose specialty is Sappho, Cusack throws all of the character’s fierce anger at the mutilation of her body and the ebbing of her life into her exacting readings of the ancient erotic poetry. When, following a three-way flirtation/debate involving Eros, politics, and the mental machine, she lashes out at her husband for daring to suggest she is defined by her failing body, Cusack takes your breath away. Her dying Eleanor’s defiance (“I am undiminished,” she cries, exposing her scars) is like hot lava thrown into a lecture.