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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Thursday 1st January 1970

Rock 'N' Roll / Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell / On the Third Day


Mick Jagger was in the audience at the first night of Rock 'N' Roll, Tom Stoppard's new play, and his loyalty was amply rewarded. As far as I'm aware, no intellectual of Stoppard's calibre has ever offered a more favourable assessment of the historical significance of the devil's music. In essence, the message of Rock 'N' Roll is that bands like the Rolling Stones brought about the collapse of the Marxist control system in Eastern Europe. Not even Camille Paglia, who bows to no man in her admiration for Keith Richards, would go that far. Forget about Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. It was Jumpin Jack Flash wot won it for us.

The fact that Stoppard puts forward such a provocative thesis doesn't in any way detract from the pleasure of Rock 'N' Roll. On the contrary, it's part of its charm. Watching this play is like reading a Finals paper by a particularly gifted PPE-ist. Stoppard makes a completely outrageous claim and then uses every weapon in his arsenal to defend it. I didn't really believe a word of it, but no more dazzling display of intellectual pyrotechnics can be seen on the London stage. After the huge disappointment of The Coast of Utopia, this is a triumphant return to form.

Rock 'N' Roll unfolds over 22 years, beginning in Cambridge in 1968 and ending in Prague in 1990. The central character is a Czech dissident named Jan whom we first meet as the lodger of Max, a battle-hardened Marxist academic. The fact that Jan is played by Rufus Sewell, a moist-eyed hunk, while Max is embodied by Brian Cox, a gruff Scotsman who once played Hannibal Lecter, should give you some idea of where this production's sympathies lie. To be fair, though, Stoppard has provided Max with some good arguments and even though he's saddled with the task of defending the Soviet Union, the battle between him and Jan is far from one-sided.

One of the things I didn't like about The Coast of Utopia, a play that chronicled the intellectual forbearers of the Russian Revolution, was the fact that Stoppard was so obviously in thrall to the ideas of Isaiah Berlin. He regurgitated Berlin's critique of utopianism, namely, that it's incompatible with the crooked timber of humanity, without pausing to consider its merits. The same basic critique underpins Rock 'N' Roll, but Stoppard has given it more bite this time by focusing on the libido as the principal cause of mankind's waywardness. According to Stoppard, it is Eros, as embodied by the popular music of the 60s, 70s and 80s, that was ultimately responsible for the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As a theme, the primacy of romantic love provides Stoppard with reams of material, enabling him to switch from an exegesis of Sapho's poetry, to a potted history of an obscure Czech band called The Plastic People of the Universe, without pausing for breath. As in The Coast of Utopia, Stoppard tries to convey a sense of history unfolding by assailing the audience with a succession of short, snapshot-like scenes, but the device is much more effective here, not least because each scene change is punctuated by a classic rock 'n' roll track from the period. He isn't a prisoner of his own technique, either. The penultimate scene--and by far the best--unfolds languorously over the course of a long day, with Stoppard masterfully bringing together all the play's disparate elements. By the end of Rock 'N' Roll, even Max, the old Stalinist warhorse, has succumbed to the Great God Pan.

Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, which is back on the West End stage in the form of a splendid production by Ned Sherrin, is another ode to the waywardness of humanity, though in this instance Pan takes a back seat to Bachus. Tom Conti may not have Peter O'Toole's air of melancholy, but beneath his saloon-bar bonhomie there's the unmistakable whiff of grief. It's Soho in its full Bohemian glory that is being mourned here--and as the evening wears on it becomes increasingly clear that we're listening to a full-blown eulogy rather than a series of anecdotes. Keith Waterhouse, the play's author, doesn't skimp from showing you the less attractive aspects of this vanished world, but he succeeds in making it seem very appealing nevertheless.

I don't want to be too cruel about On The Third Day since it's author, Kate Betts, is the winner of a Channel 4 competition to discover a new playwright. She has evidently taken a creative writing course, but I don't get the impression she has received any instruction in the craft of dramatic writing. Instead, she seems to have taken a leaf out of George Bernard Shaw's book, who once declared, "I never invent plot. It is the curse of serious drama." Before she puts pen to paper again, I suggest she reads Write That Play, Kenneth Rowe's classic how-to guide for the complete novice. If she does that, her next play might be worth persevering with beyond the interval.

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