29 February 2008

Rock ‘n’ Roll

Rock ‘n’ Roll
February 2008
The Playhouse, the Arts Centre

Tom Stoppard brilliantly uses the potent, resonating, loud, angry symbolism of rock and roll throughout Rock ‘n’ Roll. Stoppard continues to write superb scripts; so why is the MTC’s production about as rock ‘n’ roll as Nanna quietly humming “The Sound of Music” as she has a luke warm cup of tea and a Milk Arrowroot?

There’s a very interesting story hidden in the Stoppard script. It combines the historical with the political and the very personal; then wraps it all in an image understood by anyone born in the 20th century. It follows the lives of an English and a Czechoslovakian academic who met at Cambridge in the 60s. The Czech returned to his home during the brief period of liberty in 1968. Their stories weave through to opening up of Eastern Europe in the late 80s.

I’m sure director Simon Phillips and his cast know the story, but it isn’t told clearly on the stage. The characters, the plot and the context are all confusing. I read the program after the show and learnt things I didn’t know about Czechoslovakia from 1968 to 1989 – facts and people that were vital to the story – shame I didn’t understand all of this after watching a three-hour long production. Programme notes are great – but they shouldn’t be necessary to understand a production.

The coherency also suffered from a lack of context. I think the picture of Gough was letting us know it was the 70s. I hope it wasn’t implying that the 1975 debacle in Australian politics was as oppressive as living behind the iron curtain at the same time. The whole production just felt so old school. Here we in Australian theatres, AGAIN pretending that we are in the UK.

I think Stoppard wrote these characters to be played with a generous dose of satire. Has anyone ever said, “The only thing that would make you happy is of the workers owned the means of production” in any context other than a first year politics tutorial? Phillips directed it far too seriously. There wasn’t room to enjoy the humour. A couple of jokes got laughs – but we were laughing at the joke, not the comedy inherent in the script or the characters.

Genevieve Picot and William Zappa stood out amongst the cast. They brought an authenticity and life to their characters and to the stage. The story, however, does revolve around Jan, played by Matthew Newton.  As an actor, you don’t have to like anything the script or the director tells you to do, but your job is to make the audience not only believe, but care about your character.  I didn’t give a toss about Jan and what happened to him. Newton’s performance was as beige as Jan’s high waisted cord trousers.

The Rock ‘n’ Roll set suitably looked like a rock gig with a wall of speakers and a moveable lighting rig. Scenes changes were music, lights and video footage establishing time and place.  A rock concert is bright, loud and imposing. So why weren’t these changes rock and roll? The sound wasn’t even half of 11 and it didn’t take long to suspect that the lights on the rig were just decoration. I can understand many of the decisions made in the direction, but this one just floored me.

In Act 2, Jan says to Nigel, “We mass produce banality in Czechoslovakia.” We seem to be doing it here in Melbourne as well. Am I wrong to expect to walk out of production by our flagship company feeling inspired?

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com

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