Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, as far as I can tell, is mainly a tribute to the ancient Czech folk custom of yelling. With rare exceptions, everybody in Rock ‘n’ Roll yells all the time. They yell when sitting quietly with their nearest and dearest, they yell when the secret police are likely to be listening, they yell when someone is asleep in the next room, they yell when talking politics, and they yell when talking pop culture. The custom is apparently contagious enough to have infected Cambridge, where Brian Cox, playing Max, a British philosophy professor so dumb that he’s still a Communist in 1968, seems to have appointed himself yeller-in-chief. No wonder, then, that when the press comes to get his reaction to the news of Soviet tanks rolling into Prague, his wife (Sinead Cusack) suggests that he do just what he did when the same thing happened in Hungary in 1956, “[eat] shit and shut up.” Surprisingly, he neither slugs her nor files for divorce, probably because she’s dying of cancer. Or maybe it’s because she herself, a Sappho scholar, has caught the yelling disease, and will shortly badger a student who’s come up with a new interpretation of the word glukupikron into fleeing her tutorial in tears.
Ostensibly, Rock ‘n’ Roll centers on Max’s relationship with Jan (Rufus Sewell), a Czech student who, lurching between Prague and Cambridge, provides a tormented apoliticality that weaves an ineffectual dialectic with Max’s tormented dogmatism. But Stoppard’s showily spasmodic dramaturgy—constantly lurching from tidbits of Chekhovian indirection into long, glib, sub-Shavian explanatory speeches—never gives the human story enough strength to withstand the flood of cultural data he pours over it, most of which seems to belong, like most of The Coast of Utopia, in an expository essay rather than onstage. Sewell, his vocal cords audibly frayed by director Trevor Nunn’s apparent insistence on top volume, nonetheless manages to give Jan a wan, indecisive charm; Cusack’s fervor is often moving. Among the fine (non-yelling) young actors in supporting roles who occasionally relieve the ear-blasting assault, Nicole Ansari, Brian Avers, Mary Bacon, and Stephen Kunken stand out. But you’ll get more drama, and more lucid political discussion, by curling up at home with a volume of Havel and your stereo’s volume control within reach.