Stoppard's new play opens... and it's more than Rock'n'Roll

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The Independent Culture

The eagerly awaited premiere of Tom Stoppard's new play, Rock 'n' Roll, at the Royal Court in London last night attracted a star- studded audience including world leaders and music legends.

The audience included Vaclav Havel, the writer who was the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, Mick Jagger and Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd.

All three are friends of the playwright and are represented in the new work, which considers events in Czechoslovakia, where Stoppard was born. The show begins with Soviet troops crushing the political liberalisation that became known as the Prague Spring in 1968, up to the collapse of Communism in 1989.

While in Prague, the story focuses on a rock 'n' roll band which comes to symbolise resistance to the Communist regime. A parallel plot in Cambridge revolves around three generations of the family of a Marxist philosopher.

Havel is mentioned frequently in the story, which is set alongside his rise to power. Music, a passion of Stoppard's, is an integral part of the drama, with specific requests for certain tracks and the whole piece concluding at a Rolling Stones concert.

There is also a character loosely based on Syd Barrett, the founder member of Pink Floyd whose increasing mental instability led to him being dropped by the band.

A new work by Stoppard is a major event, partly because he is loved by audiences, despite his rather intimidating intellect. The show has already proved the hottest ticket in the Royal Court's 50-year history and is a highlight of its anniversary celebrations.

The play - which runs at the Royal Court until 15 July, before transferring to the Duke of York's Theatre in the West End and reopening on 22 July - is Stoppard's first since a trilogy of plays about 19th-century Russians at the National Theatre in 2002. It is a rare exploration of the place of his birth - a country which his Jewish family fled when he was a baby to escape the Nazi threat.

It has provoked particular comment because it is his first work for the Royal Court, the spiritual home of new writing in Britain and, perhaps, a more left-wing venue than might seem natural for the somewhat conservative Stoppard.

Bill Gaskill, a director who was originally on the 50th anniversary programme at the Royal Court, withdrew in protest at Stoppard's inclusion. He argued that while it was hard to define what a Royal Court play was, everyone knew what it was not - and that was a play by Tom Stoppard.

Theatre insiders said the work was warmer than the "all head, no heart" reputation that has often accompanied Stoppard.