It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (But I Like It)

fiona reid, belinda cornish, kenneth welsh
Last Spring I emerged from Soulpepper Theatre after seeing their brilliant production of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties with creativity, unbridled, bubbling deep within me and I knew that I had to write a play. On Thursday evening I emerged from the Bluma Appel Theatre after seeing the Canadian Stage Company’s production of Stoppard’s new play Rock ‘n’ Roll (2006) with my head spinning and saturated, my mind stimulated to make the historical and political connections and eager to intellectualize and to question the authority of the world. Yet, my heart didn’t want to write a play. My heart felt a little left out.
Rock ‘n’ Roll is a play that chronicles the rise and fall of communism in Czechoslovakia after the Second World War and throughout the ensuing Cold War, and connects it to the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll music and its themes and images of rebellion, freedom, social expression, and the youthful energy associated with sex, drugs and promises of tomorrow. There is nothing simplistic about Stoppard’s play. Although Stoppard only lived in Czechoslovakia for the first two years of his life before fleeing the Nazis (eventually going to England) with his family and other Jewish Czechs, it can be assumed that he has a personal connection to the development of his native country throughout the Cold War, and it is obvious that Rock ‘n’ Roll was meticulously researched and the theories and historical contexts of communism were vigorously investigated. In this way, this play is extremely dense and seeks to immerse its audience into the historical and political climate of Czechoslovakia entirely. For this reason, the programme of the Canadian Stage Company’s production includes a timeline of communism, a glossary of terms and more contextual information is provided in the lobby. This is theatre that demands an audience’s investment and I am very proud to see such a production being produced at the Bluma Appel.
I found that the performances in this production were captivating and thrilling and helped to root Stoppard’s theorizing in something far more human and easy to connect to. Yet, my heart was still not drawn into the equation, and I think that is because Stoppard wrote this play as one inhabited by a gang of bright, passionate, intellectual characters who coexist, and by times enjoy each other’s company, but who are utterly self-sufficient, independent and intent on burrowing down into the deepest crevices of whatever interests them and then will remain content. It doesn’t mean that this is a bad play, or one that cannot be enjoyed, I just think Stoppard showed more artistic balance in Travesties.
The Canadian Stage Company has assembled a formidable team of artists to bring this play to life. Donna Feore directs the piece by breaking the play very stylistically into short snapshot scenes. I liked the briskness of this effect as it kept the pace in a sense of urgency and motion as the play hopped between countries and catapulted us through time. The Bluma Appel Theatre has the ability to use screens and projections which are used throughout Rock ‘n’ Roll, but I feel like none of the productions I have seen at the Canadian Stage Company have used this technology to its full potential. The images always seem too conservative and sluggish when I expect to be assaulted by something gripping, raw and immediate. For if the projections aren’t eliciting something different than the actors are, why are we mixing media at all?
Indeed, nothing could detract from the brilliant performances given by Kenneth Welsh, Fiona Reid and Shaun Smyth. Shaun Smyth played Jan, a young Czech who was raised in the Communist Party at Cambridge, who, upon his return to Czechoslovakia, becomes inspired by both Western and Eastern rock ‘n’ roll music and battles against the censorship and oppressiveness of his native land. Smyth’s Jan is idealistic and loyal, who grows wiser as the play progresses, but never looses a sense of gentle faith and quiet confidence in his dreams. Fiona Reid gives a mind-blowing performance as Eleanor, an intelligent University professor, who has found herself fighting for her life. Reid throws so much raw, compelling emotion into the formidable Eleanor. She created a character I wish I could meet and who I know would have commanded my utter respect. In a dazzling shift, in Act II Reid played Esme, Eleanor’s flower child daughter, with every bit as much presence and conviction. Kenneth Welsh was every bit as imposing and incredible as Max, a British Professor at Cambridge who still clings fervently to the concept of the development of an ideal manifestation of Communism. Welsh created a character who was utterly sympathetic, although frequently frustrating, and developed the same complex and surprisingly tender relationship with the audience that he had with his wife, daughter, granddaughter and Jan.
I must say, however, as brilliant as Reid and Welsh are (and that’s undeniable), there is a stunning scene in the play featuring both of them and the young, incredibly bright scholar Lenka, played by Belinda Cornish, which I also found worthy of note. Cornish has remarkable poise and persistence as Lenka, as well as a flawless Czech accent, which adds this wonderful element of tension and dynamism to the play. I was captivated by her status in the midst of Reid and Welsh and wished that she had a larger role in the play.
Rock ‘n’ Roll examines some brilliant questions and investigates the power of music. Rock ‘n’ roll can easily be dismissed as being just music, but when it is the pulsing heart of a revolution, even the Beach Boys can become the means for a political anthem. My mind enjoyed being stretched with this Stoppard play and I was grateful for all the performers who gave so much passion and ardor to their roles. Travesties propelled me to express myself in writing, while Rock ‘n’ Roll has propelled me to listen to the music and perhaps to consider the lyrics with a little more reflection. There is a line that Jan has when talking to a Western Character about the Czech band, The Plastic People of the Universe, where he beseeches him to write about the music, and to learn about the band, rather than simply studying their social consequence. So, perhaps, in that way, it is apt that I am left with a hankering for music to tell its story and to shift my focus toward the rock’n’ roll.
Rock ‘n’ Roll plays at the Bluma Appel Theatre (The Canadian Stage Company) until October 24th, 2009. 27 Front Street East. For tickets please call 416. 368.3110 or visit

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