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What did rock music have to do with the political uprising and cultural revolutions of the 60s and 70s’ Can dissent or resistance come in the form of hedonism’ What is the relationship between popular culture and revolution’

In Tom Stoppard’s latest play we see the passing of time from the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 up to the Velvet Revolution in 1990, and the many momentous events in world politics and in popular culture that happened in between.

Dealing with huge themes like capitalism, power, passion, consciousness, Marxism, freedom of expression, fear and social uprising, the story is told through the personal lives of a Cambridge history professor, Max (William Zappa), his wife Eleanor and their daughter Esme (both played by Genevieve Picot), and his protégé Jan (Matthew Newton), a Czech student obsessed with rock music.

A recurring question throughout the play is that of the difference between practice and theory, in terms of both communist politics and personal relationships. A highpoint of the drama is the heated debate between the characters Max, his cancer-ridden wife Eleanor, and her student Lenka over the difference – or lack thereof – between the mind and the body, as represented in the poetry of Sappho.

When Jan returns to Prague from Cambridge he outrages his close friend by refusing to sign a petition. Jan doesn’t see the point – it’s nothing but ‘moral exhibitionism,’ he says. If people really wanted to make a difference, they should step in directly, not place themselves in the centre of things and show off their position. Real dissent, he believes, is rock music. The significance of the subversive, underground Czech band, The Plastic People of the Universe, he argues, is the escapism and attitude of not caring ‘ because that is the only real threat to the system.

This Melbourne Theatre Company production directed by MTC Artistic Director Simon Phillips features very strong performances all round, with William Zappa as Max a clear standout. Long, weighty, wordy and demanding, it’s a powerful and epic piece that is also amusing, heart-warming, and largely thanks to the fantastic soundtrack (from the likes of The Stones, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Pink Floyd and The Cure), undeniably fun.

It explores complex ideological, political and philosophical questions, but is anything but preaching in tone. Stoppard has said himself, ‘I write plays because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting myself. I’m the kind of person who embarks on an endless leapfrog down the great moral issues. I put a position, rebut it, refute the rebuttal and rebut the refutation. Forever. Endlessly.’ That he does this with such humanism, wit and lyricism is what makes his plays so satisfying to see.


Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard
Until May 17
Sydney Theatre
22 Hickson Rd, Walsh Bay
Bookings: 9250 1777 or