Rock ‘n’ Roll ★★★★★ Hampstead Theatre | Dec 6, 2023 - Jan 27, 2024

Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll ostensibly deals with a rather specific time and place, Czechoslovakia from about 1962 to 1990. And at first glance, it might seem a little confusing for those unfamiliar with events that took place during that period. However, the work really chronicles a clash of generations and the almost cyclic expression of forces which Nietzsche dubbed the Apollonian and Dionysian. The communists, or Apollonian idealists, who envisage a world perfected through politics are exemplified in the play by Cambridge professor, Max, beautifully rendered by Nathaniel Parker. However, the young people of the 1960s represented by Max's daughter, Esme (Phoebe Horn), and Jan, the visiting student from Czechoslovakia (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), eschew politics and a mechanistic view of human nature. They celebrate art, embodied in the anarchic spirit of rock 'n' roll, and embrace the power of the great god, Pan. They actually echo Max's wife, Eleanor, who is a Classics scholar devoted to the poetry of Sappho but whose passion in a time of Apollonian dominance has become attenuated into a scholarship largely devoted to the study of issues such as the accuracy of translation and metre. Stoppard's play deals with some large and fascinating ideas, but spreading his thesis across three generations doesn't allow for the kind of character development that might have led to more than an intellectual engagement with the play. For us, the most intriguing character is actually the dying Eleanor played to perfection by Nancy Carroll. Her relationship with the formidable Max seemed under-explored as the story of Esme and Jan predominated. The second act which extends the dialectic to the third generation, with Max's grandchild, Alice, being closer in character to her grandfather than to her free-spirited parents, also becomes rather compacted as the new characters are introduced and storylines are tied up. While director Nina Raine's decision to stage the production in the round sometimes seems distracting, this challenging piece from one of Britain's foremost playwrights plus some first rate performances make it must-see theatre.

Rated: ★★★★★

Reviewed by J.C.
Photo by Manuel Harlan

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