Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
Writing for Us
A CurtainUp London Review
The Coast of Utopia
In his new trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, Stoppard tackles nineteenth century historical and literary figures, as he did in The Invention of Love, but rather than confining himself to one country and focussing on Russia and the Russian situation, he takes in a broad historical sweep of the men and ideas that led to revolutionary social and political change in Europe. It is a fascinating way to study history, to look at the individuals who helped bring about that change and, in the hands of the erudite Stoppard, it makes for involving drama.
Stoppard's latest plays look at the development of ideas and philosophy in the nineteenth century, at Romanticism and Idealism, the Utopia of his title. It was felt by many that Russia was a special case, that the problems of her society still based on medieval serfdom, would not be solved by reference to Western Europe. The starting point for The Coast of Utopia's first play, Voyage is the Decembrist revolt of 1825. The hard line reaction by the Tsar set up a society of censorship, banishment and imprisonment of any who opposed him.
Voyage, for me the most brilliant of the three, looks at the ideas through the family of Mikhail Bakunin (Douglas Henshall), who eventually embraced anarchism, and the visitors to the Bakunin's country house at Premukhino. The Bakunin family is extensive. Father and country estate owner, Alexander (John Carlisle) is looking for husbands for Bakunin's four sisters, which raises ideas of marrying for love or for economic reasons. Most of Bakunin's fellow thinkers were from the landed classes, men like Alexander Herzen (Stephen Dillane) whose story dominates the second play Shipwreck and the last play Salvage. We meet too the aspiring writer, Ivan Turgenev (Guy Henry) and all too briefly before he is killed in a duel, Alexander Pushkin (Jack James). An exception is Vissarion Belinsky (Will Keen) who was a literary critic from a very poor background who was with Bakunin in the circle of students in Moscow in the 1830s which included the philosopher Nicholas Stankevich (Raymond Coulthard) and the historian Timofei Granovsky (Iain Mitchell).
If the first play is about the imagination of the development of a fairer society, the second, Shipwreck, sees many of those ideas drown with the failure of the Europe wide revolutions of 1848 and the exile of many from both Russia and Germany. Man was not as Rousseau had hoped, "born to be free". On a personal level too, we see Herzen's marriage to the vivacious and intelligent Natalie Herzen (Eve Best) flounder when she has a dalliance with the German radical poet, George Herwegh (Raymond Coulthard), and the tragic drowning of the Herzens' deaf son Kolya (Padraig Goodall/Matthew Thomas-Davies/David Perkins).
In the last play, Salvage, the last half of which rivals Voyage, we see how the emigré population of London keep resistance alive in Poland and Russia, print books and pamplets and eventually return to (albeit temporarily) more liberal regimes. This first half of this last play seems overly concerned with Herzen's domestic arrangements for his motherless children after the death of his wife but comes into its own in the final scenes. The schism is wrought, Herzen favours slow continuous progress. He is dubbed a liberal by the Marxists who cling to the idea of a revolution which will sweep away the old order and result in the dictatorship of the proletariat on the path to socialism, while the anarchists and the nihilists want to sweep all old order away. Russia achieves the emancipation of the serfs but with no land rights, the peasants are as without hope as they ever were.
Stoppard's plays can be enjoyed at myriad levels. Although there are different characters to deal with, played by the same members of this cast, Trevor Nunn has ensured that they look and sound different, so as not to add to the complexity. If you have a background in Russian history, there are many in-jokes to enjoy, many more than those that I fear I understood. For example, when Mikhail Bakunin says, "What is to be done?" he is of course pre-empting the title of Lenin's famous book. If you have no such background, Stoppard has laced his play with wit and fun accessible to all, the wife who objects to an offensive word in a sentence which contains the words bourgeois and anus to have her husband apologise and say "middle class" instead. Often it is the juxtaposition of high flown ideas with the mundane punch line which delights, Mikhail Bakunin:
"The life of the Spirit is the only real life: our everyday existence stands between us and our transcendence to the Universal Idea where we become one with the Absolute! Do you see? . . . . God, I'm starving."
Overall, the quality of the writing is matchless, explaining complex philosophy with ease without talking down to us and sounding like television made for children.
Trevor Nunn's direction, recalling both his recent productions of Gorky's Summerfolk and Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, gives us the silent, leg ragged, bearded, downward looking serfs waiting in the background to remind us of the oppressed substructure supporting the lifestyle of the Russian gentry. His direction is beautifully assured and this play will be remembered as the pinnacle of his art as he leaves the National Theatre next Spring. Visually it is exciting. There is brilliant use of the turning, circular stage, for the pleasure of ice skating to conveying political turmoil. Scene changes are beautifully executed with the shifters in character. The play opens with music and laughter and the Bakunin family seated at dinner twirling round in an evocation of a happy time in 1833. Later a clever picnic scene recreates Edouard Manet's shocking Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe as the naked Natalie Herzen surprises her future, fully dressed lover, out of doors. Shocking is the gunshot and the bleak monochromatic, snow covered landscape that is the death of Pushkin and the tragic loss of his beautiful poetry. The recreation of the barricades for the 1848 Parisian revolt reminds us that Nunn was the original director of the stage hit Les Misérables. The projected backdrops of William Dudley's design pleased me, taking us to the Place de la Concorde in Paris, to St Petersburg, to silver birches by the side of the Russian country house, to the lapping water of Lake Geneva, to the cliffs at the Isle of Wight and many more, creating an authenticity of place and mood. Costume is of the usual high standard at the National and the characters age effectively, succumbing to hair loss and portliness.
Of the performances, Stephen Dillane never disappoints and here gives the enormous single role of Alexander Herzen an intelligence, a humanity which is credible and enormously likeable. Herzen as a thinker seems a man ahead of his time. Will Keen is terrific as the socially inept and consumptive Belinsky who has political vision. His racking, tubercular cough is like nothing I have heard in the theatre. Douglas Henshall, too, shows a brilliant stage presence as the buffeted but surviving Bakunin, whose life full of revolutionary activity led to imprisonment and escape, worthy of a drama all his own. Lanky and langurous, Guy Henry plays the misunderstood Turgenev in all three plays. I was delighted by Charlotte Emmerson's three very separate performances as sad wife Varenka; Herwegh's emigré wife in reduced circumstances and Maria Sutherland, London girl of the streets and mistress to Nicholas Ogarev (Simon Day). My one criticism of the otherwise excellent castin concerns Eve Best. While she is very convincing and different as the sister who loves Georges Sands' novels, Liubov Bakunin, and the German emigré and disciplinarian governess, Malwina von Meysenburg, disappointed in the key role in Shipwreck of the enigmatic Natalie Herzen.
With each play lasting almost three hours, seeing all three in a day, although they make for a very special day, made me feel that I did not have the concentration to do full justice to Tom Stoppard's work on first viewing. The text was only available yesterday, so a preview reading was not possible. Each play has been written to stand alone. After the first play Voyage, I felt that I had seen a new work by Chekhov, only one which was much more hopeful. The second play Shipwreck is less dramatic, maybe some of its disappointment is to do with its subject matter of disillusionment and lost ideals? In the first half of the final play, Salvage I felt side tracked by Herzen's child care arrangements but the last half brilliantly draws together the progress of ideas and presages the bloody Russian revolution and Stalinism.
Curtain Up's Tom Stoppard Page
Reviews of Trevor Nunn's Russian Plays
The Cherry Orchard
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
Click image to buy.
Go here for details and larger image.