Playwright Tom Stoppard has a knack for getting New York theatergoers into a tizzy. Last year, his award-winning “The Coast of Utopia” had audiences enraptured, sometimes for nine hours at a time. This fall, he’s returned to Broadway from London’s West End, bringing his latest play, “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” with him — as well as much of the original British cast, including renowned Irish actress Sinead Cusack.
A three-time veteran of the Great White Way, Cusack is wryly cognizant of Times Square’s tourist appeal — and the potential confusion caused by the name of Stoppard’s latest work.
“It’s such a great title for the play, except for those people who come and expect it to be a musical,” she laughs of “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” which opened last week at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. But they won’t leave entirely bereft of the musical genre: Tracks from the likes of Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones bookend every scene.
Set at Cambridge University and in Prague over the course of about 20 years, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” follows a Czech lecturer, Jan (Rufus Sewell); a professorial couple — Eleanor (Cusack) and the staunchly Communist Max (Brian Cox), and their daughter, Esme (Alice Eve). When 1968 brings the Prague Spring, a brief period of Czech democratic reforms, Jan returns home buoyed by hope. Meanwhile, at Cambridge, Eleanor must battle cancer and her husband’s Communist beliefs, to heartbreaking effect.
“What Tom is concerned with in the play is how our humanness finally prevails over a system or a belief system,” muses Cusack of the clashing of music, politics and doctrines.
The work proves a particular challenge for the actress as she must play both the academic Eleanor and, in the second act, the 39-year-old version of Esme, a grown-up flower child struggling with her less-than-illustrious life.
“Esme was the one I was most worried about because she’s a lot younger than I am,” says Cusack, 59, who is married to Jeremy Irons (with whom she has two sons). “I had to find two diametrically different voices, two entirely different characters who spoke differently, thought differently and had very different mind-sets. There’s a lyrical quality to Esme and there’s a controlled and disciplined demeanor to Eleanor.”
This story first appeared in the November 13, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Cusack is no stranger to the musicality of language. She’s a prolific stage performer in England and former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, taking on leads in “Macbeth,” “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Antony and Cleopatra” in London, as well as “Much Ado About Nothing,” here, which earned her a Tony Award nomination. While she has known Stoppard for years, this marks her first role in one of his plays.
“I always had an aspiration to be a classical actress. I think it’s being an Irish peasant,” she jokes.
However, Cusack’s theatrical endeavors were somewhat of an accident. The daughter of famed thespian Cyril Cusack, the young Cusack set out on an academic career. But right before starting her studies at Dublin’s University College she ran into some actors in the street and on a whim, auditioned for the National Theater of Ireland. When she got in, she managed to juggle university and drama school for three years until she was kicked out of the latter.
“They said I couldn’t be heard past the first three rows of the stall,” laughs Cusack.
Her father’s reaction to her chosen profession was no less complimentary.
“He said, ‘I’m not sure you’ll ever make a career of it. You don’t have the equipment,'” she recalls. “I never worked out what he meant by that.”
It’s safe to say, Cusack has had the last laugh.