Quentin Letts: Be honest now. Do you really understand Tom Stoppard?

Stop to peek at Cate Blanchett's frock and you've lost the thread
Click to follow
The Independent Online

That noted classicist Sir Mick Jagger was in the audience at the Royal Court on Wednesday. So were a few other lizard-necked rockers with their stepladder girlfriends. Raine, comtesse de Chambrun was in row D, beneath an extraordinary hairdo shaped like a vast cycle helmet. The former Czech president Vaclav Havel sat directly to her starboard side, blinking. I'm not sure the full horror of the words "Acid Raine" have a Czech equivalent, but as the former Countess Spencer swivelled on him and introduced herself with a flash of her gleaming gnashers, maybe Vaclav didn't need a translation. Just help.

Up on stage, a character played by Sinead Cusack gave a tutorial on Sappho, poetess and seventh-century BC bra twanger. We heard about Fragment 130 - "Eros deute m'ho lusimeles donei glukupikron amachanon orpeton". You know, the one they keep on papyrus at the Ashmolean.

The characters debated which was the more important word: Sappho's invention, glukupikron, which means "sweet-bitter", or amachanon, meaning "contrivance, device, instrument". Is Sappho saying that Eros is a spirit and not a machine? Is she making a distinction between thinking and feeling?

I hope you're still with me, because that last little passage is central to understanding Rock ' 'n' Roll, the hot new play by Sir Tom Stoppard. The evening lasts for three hours and it's a bit like fielding in the slips to a first-class seam attack. The slightest lapse in concentration or wandering-brain syndrome or peering along the row to take a peek at Cate Blanchett's frock, and you've had it. Dropped the ball. Lost the thread.

How does Sir Tom get away with it? In an age of dumbing-down, the Stoppard brand is all about intellectual one-upmanship and detailed scholarship. Much of the stuff goes zooming way over our heads, yet we still seem to like it. Why?

Jumpers concerns the philosopher G E Moore. Neutral Ground is a riff on Sophocles's Philoctetes. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead requires close acquaintance with the text of Hamlet and plays language games as fiddly as the wiring of a computer circuit. Rustle a toffee wrapper at the wrong moment and you'll never regain mastery of the plot.

When Sir Tom's Arcadia opened in London a few years ago, a certain newspaper editor, tall and stentorian, came striding out of the auditorium at half-time, barking "Do you understand it?" to all and sundry. The general inclination of the foyer was to agree with him, yet most people dutifully filed in for the second half. Arcadia is about Fermat's theorem, Byron, 18th-century landscape gardening and chaos theory. Naturally, it received the most handsome reviews - as has Rock 'n' Roll.

Actually, this latest Stoppard is less densely packed with pseudish footnotery than some of your man's other efforts. Remember Travesties? That's the Stoppard which imagines Lenin, James Joyce and Tristan Tzara (a prominent Dada-ist, m'lud) getting together in Zurich in 1917. Rock 'n' Roll, despite the stuff about Sappho's fragment, is much less chewy. It may even be Stoppard's best play - if only because it is guy-roped by lots of familiar rock music. Unless I am completely mistaken (which is possible), it is really a rather anti-intellectual work that places greater value on man's heart than his mind.

During the interval on Wednesday, as we critics skimmed the script to ensure we had got the right end of the stick, one of my colleagues remarked that writing an overnight review of a new Stoppard is a bit like doing university finals all over again. Maybe that's why he is such a success. Audiences emerge from Stoppard delighted to have endured an intellectual steeplechase. He is the bard for bluffers and no one dare say otherwise.

Comments