Rock ’n’ Roll

Circa One, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

28/02/2009 - 28/03/2009

Production Details

Czechs & Thugs & Rock ‘N’ Roll 

The NEW ZEALAND PREMIERE of Tom Stoppard’s ROCK ‘N’ ROLL opens at CIRCA THEATRE on Saturday 28th February at 8pm, and runs until 28 March.

An extraordinary, award-winning comedy from four-time Tony winner, Tom Stoppard (Arcadia, Shakespeare in Love), ROCK ‘N’ ROLL is a sweeping and passionate play that spans two countries, three generations and 22 turbulent years, at the end of which, love remains — and so does rock ‘n’ roll.

It begins in a Cambridge garden with a piper playing the Syd Barrett song, Golden Hair.

It’s August 1968, and Russian tanks are rolling in to Prague… Jan, the Czech student, lives for rock music, Max, the English professor, lives for Communism, and Esme, the flower child, is high.

It ends in Prague in 1990 – the tanks are rolling out, the Stones are rolling in and idealism has hit the wall.

Working, as it does, from the double perspective of Prague, where a rock ‘n’ roll band (the real-life Plastic People of the Universe) comes to symbolise resistance to the Communist regime, and of Cambridge where the realities of love and death are shaping the lives of three generations in the family of a Marxist philosopher and his Classicist wife Rock ‘n’ Roll is a complex and moving play that touches on so many themes. But as the Guardian critic, Michael Billington, said: "It is above all a celebration of the pagan spirit embodied by rock ‘n’ roll…. The remarkable thing is it leaves you cheered by its wit, buoyancy and belief in the human spirit."

And throughout the play, each scene is punctuated by the sounds of legendary groups including the Stones, Pink Floyd, The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, U2, The Beach Boys and Guns ‘n’ Roses.

Rock’n’Roll had a record-breaking sold-out run in the West end when it opened in 2006, winning Best New Play in the Evening Standard and in the London Critics Circle Awards.

It is considered to be Stoppard’s most personal play, with the story of Jan being like a "mirror life" of what might have been if Stoppard had returned to his native Czechoslovakia at the end of the war, instead of going to Britain.

This is Wellington’s chance to see this amazing play that has been acclaimed the world over!

"Exhilarating, touching and remarkable! A play in which we happily groove to the guitar licks of history"  – Washington Post

"Tom Stoppard’s astounding new work is funny, wise and triumphant" – New York Magazine

"It’s about teaching and learning and living and loving and it may change your life" – Metro

"Touched the heart while stimulating the mind. An intellectually challenging, intensely theatrical piece of work that is destined to be talked about wherever playgoers gather. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world" – Wall St Journal 

Starring: Jeffrey Thomas (Mercy Peak, The Winslow Boy), Michele Amas (Mammals, Homeland), Aaron Alexander (Love Song), Laura Hill (Shortland St, Jane Eyre), James Conway-Law (Mr Marmalade), Sophie Hambleton (The Little Dog Laughed), Richard Knowles (The Little Dog Laughed), Tina Regtien (Second-Hand Wedding, Homeland), Gavin Rutherford (Love Song, Hotel)


With Set Design: John Hodgkins, Lighting Design: Phillip Dexter, Video Design: Andrew Brettell, Sound Design: Thomas Press and Costume Design: Gillie Coxill


Proudly sponsored by Peter and Mary Biggs


Circa Theatre 

28th February – 28th March
$20 SPECIALS – Friday 27 February – 8pm;   Sunday 1 March – 4pm.
Performance times:
Tuesday & Wednesday 6.30pm
Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8pm
Sunday 4pm
Ticket Prices:
Adults – $38; Concessions – $30; Friends of Circa – $28
Under 25s – $20; Groups 6+ s- $32
Circa Theatre,             1 Taranaki Street, Wellington
Phone 801 7992

Esme (younger) / Alice:  SOPHIE HAMBLETON
Eleanor / Esme (older):  MICHELE AMAS
Gillian / Magda / Candida / Deirdre:  LAURA HILL
Interrogator / Milan / Nigel:  GAVIN RUTHERFORD
Piper / Policeman / Stephen / Waiter:  JAMES CONWAY-LAW


Stage Manager:  Eric Gardiner
Operator:  Jennifer Lal
Video Design:  Andrew Simpson
Sound Design:  Thomas Press
Wigs:  Vicky Kothroulas
Set Finishing:  Eileen McCann, Therese Eberhard
Publicity:  Claire Treloar
Graphic Design:  Rose Miller, Toolbox Creative
Photography:             Stephen A'Court
House Manager:  Suzanne Blackburn
Box Office:  Linda Wilson

2 hrs 45 mins, incl. interval

Stoppard rocks

Review by Craig Beardsworth 12th Mar 2009

Communism, Marxism, Trotskyism. Pink Floydism – Rock’n’Roll has the lot.

Set in two cities, spanning 22 years and three generations with nine actors playing 19 roles this is no entrée to Tom Stoppard. He’s got the big guns out, namely political discourse during the Thatcher years when Communism was rolling around Czechoslovakia. As it was so often in this time rock music plays a clever foil for protest.

The heavily politicised dialogue is punctuated by several poignant moments that lift the play from being a history lesson and reminds us that indeed Stoppard is not just a word whizz but also a fine distiller of the human condition.

The scenes between Max and Elenor about the onslaught of cancer and later when Jan and the older Esme try to farewell each other were the most affecting. Both utilise the considerable talents of actress Michele Amas.

Jeffrey Thomas who plays Max has a voice that resonates through the theatre (and the sternum) – he had some of the most difficult text to wade through and yet it seemed effortless. Finally, Aaron Alexander, who played Jan, owned the first act. Almost always onstage he convincingly juggled a Czech and neutral accent when appropriate.

This reviewer feels you could easily do without the last 15 minutes or so because at three hours in length this is a weighty piece that takes dedication to digest. If you care to dine however it is a rewarding experience.


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Not to be missed

Review by Guy Somerset 10th Mar 2009

[The full text of this article appears in the NZ Listener
  (March 14-20 2009), on sale now.]

"I know where Syd Barrett lives," sang British group the Television Personalities. Tom Stoppard goes one better: he knows where the early Pink Floyd frontman was when he got the inspiration for his song Golden Hair.

In the opening scene of Rock’n’Roll, Barrett is a Pan-like piper sitting on the garden wall of Cambridge professor Max Morrow’s house, serenading his blonde daughter, Esme.

It is 1968 and the Prague Spring is unravelling in Czechoslovakia, prompting the return of young academic Jan, who has been studying under Max, a resolutely unreconstructed communist as old as the October Revolution. [Source]

[The full text will be available online on Mar 28, 2009.
Subscribe online to the NZ Listener.]
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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World events get Rock rolling

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 02nd Mar 2009

Stoppard’s engrossing play Rock ‘n’ Roll starts in a garden in Cambridge, England, in 1968 with the God Pan (or is it Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd?) playing a pipe to a flower child, while in Czechoslovakia Dubcek’s mild reforms are unsettling the Russians. The play ends, having moved back and forth between the two cities, at a Rolling Stones concert in Prague in 1990 at the start of the Velvet Revolution.

The link between the two cities is Jan, a Czech student studying Marxism in Cambridge under the guidance of Max, a curmudgeonly, unrepentant Marxist who remained a Communist party member despite Hungary.

Jan returns to Prague with his precious collection of rock ‘n’ roll records just before the Russians replace Dubcek with their man Husak. Slowly Jan becomes involved with the realities of the lack of individual freedom as Havel and others write Charter 77 and the musicians of the rock band The Plastic People of the Universe upset the authorities with their long hair and their complete indifference to politics.

Jan describes the Plastics as "coming from somewhere else, from where the Muses come from. They’re not heretics. They’re pagans." And the play is essentially a debate, with many of the best lines given to the ‘devil’ Max, about the nature of individual freedom, dissidence, and revolution. The Czechs’ hard fought for freedoms are contrasted with the current erosion of English liberties and what a character describes "a democracy of obedience."

Being a Stoppard play there are scenes about the poetry of Sappho, family life, and consciousness all wrapped up inside the political debate about personal and civc happiness. It’s an exhilarating play, even if the ending is a little too pat and sentimental for comfort.

It has, as a friend said at the interval, gained in topicality since it was first performed in 2006 since when Capitalism seems to be in danger of imploding in much the same way as Communism did in the 1970s.

Susan Wilson’s strong production, with its revolving stage and excellent overhead video projections (Andrew Simpson) of date and place, accompanied by bursts of rock music between scenes, serves the play well particularly in the first half. In the second half the energy stalled at times and the cast and the production in the final scenes were unable to make Stoppard’s drawn out happy endings believable.

There are some first rate performances. Aaron Alexander is impressive as the quietly independent, rock addicted Jan (Stoppard’s alter ego?). Jeffrey Thomas makes Max totally believable and the character’s occasional bursts of temper are frightening and the underplayed displays of compassion quietly affecting.

Michele Amas, who is, as usual, superb, plays two roles: Max’s cancer-ridden wife Eleanor, and Esme, Eleanor and Max’s daughter who as a girl (played by Sophie Hambleton) saw Syd Barrett (or was it Pan?) in the garden.

While it hasn’t the cohesiveness of his masterpiece Arcadia, Rock ‘n’ Roll is stuffed with enough wit, humour, compassion, debate and intellectual and emotional stimulus to make most other plays seem empty in comparison. Thoroughly recommended.


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The excellence of Stoppard brought to stimulating life

Review by John Smythe 01st Mar 2009

Rock ‘n’ Roll is a complex play but, as with richly textured music, if you submit to its totality particular aspects will engage your emotions and intellect. You may feel reconnected to past personal experiences and discover things you didn’t know. You may be inspired to reflect on where we are now, first in relation to the last 40 years then to most of recorded human history, given the clever way the play reaches right back to Ancient Greece …

In essence I’d say Rock ‘n’ Roll is about revolution: social, political and that of the LP record. And occupation: of states, of minds and of the body (as in cancer). And love; of self, family, humanity – and rock ‘n’ roll. 

Conclusion? It was rock ‘n’ roll that defeated Soviet communism in Czechoslovakia. The final image evokes crowds of Czechs at Prague’s Strahov stadium in August 1990, where the Communist Party used to hold its rallies …  

The journey to that redefining moment spans 22 years, from Syd Barrett’s return home to Cambridge in 1968 after leaving Pink Floyd, and his ‘Golden Hair’ single (based on the James Joyce poem ‘Lean Out of the Window’), through references to Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground, to the emergence of Czechoslovakia’s own Plastic People of the Universe.

It was the communist regime’s brutal fear-based treatment of that band and their fans, and the trial of the Plastics in 1976 for spreading anti-socialist ideas (they were convicted for "organized disturbance of the peace") that provoked playwright Vaclav Havel and other writers and academics to form the human rights movement Charter 77, 12 years before Havel became president of the Czech Republic. The Stones Prague concert came the year after that.

The way genius playwright Tom Stoppard explores all this is to focus on an academic couple in Cambridge, England, their daughter and their students, one of whom returns to Prague in the spring of 1968. That’s when the Soviets begin their repression of the liberal policies of Communist leader Alexander Dubcek, in totalitarian contradiction of the ‘flower power’ revolution that is radically changing the western world.

The couple are Marxist philosopher Max and Classical Studies professor Eleanor, who teaches Sapphic poetry. Esme, their daughter, is a "peace and happiness" flower child. The Czech student, Jan, is a loyal Communist with a growing devotion to rock ‘n’ roll. Thus the pagan sensualism of Sappho in a culture dominated by determinist Gods is compared and contrasted with the anarchism of rock ‘n’ roll under a dictatorial political regime. As I said: genius.

Over two Acts and 15 scenes, the action spanning 1968 to 1990 alternates between Cambridge and Prague bringing, among other things, three generations of women to the fore. The only things that don’t change are the wallpaper in the College-owned home, the furniture and the brick wall in the garden.

As with all Stoppard plays, Rock ‘n’ Roll is a challenge to produce and this Circa team, with director Susan Wilson at the helm, makes it their own absolutely. What’s lost from playing in a larger space with a bigger budget and backstage crew, to better manifest the difference between a fertile English garden in different seasons and a bland Prague flat, is gained in the relative intimacy of Circa One, where actors can ‘be’ their characters without having to over-project. In this we are blessed.  

The casting is impeccable. Jeffrey Thomas is superb as Max, the intractable idealist Marxist who resorts to abusive ridicule and name-calling when others dare to differ, yet loves his wife and daughter profoundly, accommodating the slings and arrows of their varying fortunes with humanity and vulnerability. Thomas never misses an emotional beat as he blends the fearsome charisma of an intellectual tyrant with the love and compassion of a husband, father and grandfather.

As his wife Eleanor, testing her students’ understanding of Sappho, Michele Amas compels our empathy with the grief, anger and momentary cruelty of a woman who has lost a breast to cancer and is confronting her mortality. Amas’s Act Two metamorphosis into the older Esme, who eschewed higher education for getting high on grass, and dwells on an hallucination (or was it?) of Syd Barrett as the great god Pan, and now feels intellectually inadequate, is equally compelling, especially when her daughter Alice proves to be as academically onto it as her grandmother Eleanor was even if her musical taste is wanting.  

Completing the family trio with equal authenticity, Sophie Hambleton fully inhabits the dual roles of Esme in her flower-child phase and Alice, first confronting the horrors of having to live in Cambridge in her gap year before she goes to Cambridge University, then in her element in academia while attempting to hold a dinner party to meet her father’s new wife.

Heading the Prague contingent is Aaron Alexander’s conflicted Jan, the realist Communist attempting to find some equilibrium between his loyalty to his home country, his love of the Cambridge lifestyle and his devotion to rock ‘n’ roll, not to mention Esme … He hits all his marks in jousting with Max, communing with Esme, coping with interrogation and arguing socialist dialects with his friend Ferdinand: an anti-repression activist, very well played by Richard Knowles.

Gavin Rutherford is unnerving as the Interrogator, even more so as clandestine party operative Milan, and is blandly British as journalist Nigel, the non-custodial father of Alice.

Laura Hill brings a subtle versatility to her four well realised roles: the timid student Gillian, Jan’s would-be girlfriend Magda, cult columnist Candida (Nigel’s new wife), and fresh young Classics student Deirdre, who waxes with joyous innocence in quoting Plutarch: "tell them that great Pan is dead!"

Deirdre’s professor is Lenka, who came to Cambridge with Jan and stayed to complete her Classical Studies and join the faculty. Tina Regtien maps her maturation over the decades beautifully, from committed sensualist to politically disillusioned helpmate of Max.

The final quartet of roles are accomplished with skill by James Conway-Law as the Piper (Syd Barrett?); a fresh-faced yet loathsome Czech policeman; Alice’s "official shag" Stephen, presumably a Political Science student in 1990 (whose robust debate with Max summarises how the Left has dissipated over the Thatcher years); and Jaroslav, a waiter in Prague who joins Jan, Esme and Ferdinand at the Stones concert.

Pan is dead: long live Pan? The more things change the more they stay the same? The end of the play is just the beginning? There is plenty to ponder and talk about when it’s over.

John Hogkins adds to the revolutionary theme with a revolving stage set the keeps the action moving. Andrew Simpson’s above-stage video images add evocative touches to the time and place labels. Jennifer Lal’s operating of Phillip Dexter’s lighting design and Thomas Press’s sound compilation meets all the demands of Stoppard’s "smash cut" stage directions. Gillie Coxill’s costume designs are exactly right and happily don’t draw undue attention to themselves.

You won’t see a play this rich on telly. Stoppard is a truly exceptional playwright and this is a rare opportunity to see his excellence brought to stimulating life. Don’t miss it.   


Gavin Rutherford March 30th, 2009

Just to back Aaron up - My goodness Steve you have no idea what a harrowing pedant Aaron Alexander is. It is verging on the unbearable. There are hard working actors and then....well, I'm sure you know the score!

Aaron Alexander March 30th, 2009

Hi Steve. Thanks for that comment. It's something, as the actor most in touch with those records, playing the character who cared so much about them, that I was acutely aware of. The fact is, most of the 'hero' record covers were reproductions. We did not have the actual records of some of the most important albums. Hence the labels weren't accurate, in some cases. Yes, we could have sought out other records with correct labels, or reproduced them, but, at the end of the day, while desirable, it was considered an excessive cost in an already expensive (in terms of both material costs and production labour) production. I suppose the compromise was taken in the knowledge that the 'pedants' (and I use the term affectionately, in the knowledge that I am one!) in the audience who were close enough to see these details would be very few in number. However, I knew there'd be at least one ;-) One other thing to perhaps consider is something a certain Kiwi playwright said to me after the show, that like the weavers of Arabian carpets, perhaps we should ensure there's a deliberate logical or visual error in every script and every production. It acknowledges our humanity...perfection belongs to Allah, not to Man (that's the weavers', not the playwright!) As far as the anachronistic albums on display go...I suppose that is perhaps less forgivable. I personally chose some of the albums on display at the front of the apartment (some belonged to me), in full knowledge of the dates of their release. Again, in discussion, we decided to let it slide, as we wanted certain images visible in that area, but had a limited number of albums to work with. Yes, reproductions of time-appropriate LPs could have been used, but again, it comes down to resources and time. If we were the mammothly funded West Ed or Broadway production, we could have demanded perfection in all areas, but that's just not the reality. I mean, you may well have noticed (I certainly could from where I was standing!) when Jan's apartment was trashed, the plethora of wildly innappropriate album covers on the floor - everything from James Last to The Judds! This is because we needed literally hundreds of covers to create the image, and to fill the shelves, and the only way to get them was from bargain basement, second-hand avenues where you have no choice in content. I'm not trying to make excuses, but just wanted to let you know that, speaking for myself, if not officially the production, I acknowledge your criticism, and feel your pain! Please know that it was not something that occurred through ignorance, or lack of care, but was a compromise based on resources. Cheers, Aaron

Ho'daddy March 29th, 2009

Last post was an inebriated one. Basically I meant I think it would be an easy play to *&$^ up. Congrats

Ho'daddy March 29th, 2009

Prop anomalies? I'm always dealing with that in life/theatre/anything; is there anything else? Congrats on presenting such a challenging/fulfilling piece of theatre. What a piece! (After reading the piece) i'm surprised this play doesn't get scathed, so well done! TRADEMETHEATREREVIEW=4****= chur all

steve dean March 28th, 2009

That's all very well but I found I lost concentration for long periods puzzling over the props anomalies. The display of Dylan's Street Legal (1978) and Ziggy Stardust (1972) in the 1968 section. Then, unforgivably as Syd was so central to the whole play, the use of a CBS and other unidentifiable label for the copies of Atom Heart Mother and The Madcap Laughs, when both were on the easily recognisable Harvest label. A problem only for pedants, but nonetheless when it had been so loving crafted in the language, these fine details could have elevated a very good production up to being great.

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