First Night: Rock 'n' Roll, Royal Court, London

Rock music and romanticism clash culturally with panache
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The Independent Culture

At what cultural event could you have seen, among the punters, Vaclav Havel and Mick Jagger, Timothy Garton Ash and Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd?

Answer: at the press night of Rock'n'Roll, Tom Stoppard's complex and moving new play about the link between rock music, East European dissidence and the fall of Communism.

Initially weird-seeming juxtapositions in the audience (including the endearingly absurd sight of Havel seated, thanks to a quirk of the ticketing, next to "Acid" Raine Spencer) are, of course, given the author, matched by strange but ultimately rewarding collocations in the piece which draws together such topics as Sappho and Syd Barrett, brain science and spiteful junk journalism.

Stoppard is famously distrustful of faith in Utopias (his last work was a nine-hour trilogy on the subject). The new play is about the danger of closed systems and of thinking that you have broken free and rescued what is human when all that you have done is replace one bad system with another.

Accordingly, the (offstage) heroes of the play - which shuttles between Prague and Cambridge during the period from the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to the Velvet Revolution - are the real-life psychedelic Czech band, the Plastic People of the Universe.

In the scenes set in Prague, we're privy to disputes between two friends who represent conflicting views about dissent in the underground opposition to the hardline Husak regime that replaced Dubcek and his "socialism with a human face".

Ferda (Peter Sullivan) is inclined to dismiss the Plastics as long-haired layabouts who aren't engaged in what matters. That's not the opinion of Jan, the character who (played by the electrically brilliant Rufus Sewell) is like the author's speculative alter-ego, the man Stoppard might have been, had his family returned after the Second World War to Czechoslovakia and ended up living under Communism.

Jan realises that the Plastics rattle the authorities more effectively than the intellectuals by their superb indifference. Policemen love and depend on dissidents for their meaning just as an Inquisition needs them. The Plastic People threw away the board on which this kind of game is played and, to the government's astonishment, their trial in 1976 sparked the protest that led to Charter 77.

Rock music matters deeply to the play and to Trevor Nunn's occasionally over-emphatic production which, between scenes, is punctuated by ironically placed excerpts of the Plastics, Pink Floyd, the Stones et al. In Cambridge and on visits to Prague, Jan's former tutor, Max Morrow, a fiery unrepentant Marxist played by a miscast Brian Cox, bites the head off anyone who casts doubt on the spirit of the October Revolution of 1917.

Sinead Cusack is powerful as Max's cancer-stricken wife who, in her ravaged state, disputes his materialist philosophy of consciousness. And in the second half, she's terribly touching as Esme, his flower-power-child drop-out who, now grown up and the mother of a brilliant daughter of her own, is struggling to find a role.

Some of the intellectual debates have a rather rigged ring and Max feels throughout like a convenient amalgam of different types of academic. I preferred the parts where Stoppard the Romantic asserts himself in ways that are less easy to paraphrase.

It remains an impressive play, likely to expand in the mind.

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