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The Coast of Utopia

As Tom Stoppard celebrates his sixty-fifth birthday, his fascinating new trilogy, “The Coast of Utopia,” has opened at the National Theatre in London.  This is Stoppard’s most serious work so far, dealing with a group of mid-nineteenth-century Russian intellectuals who seek philosophical political solutions for their country, tyrannized by Czar Nicholas I, with censorship and exile for the intelligentsia and slavery for the serfs. With 30 actors in over 70 roles, it is played out against a panoramic background of moving, curved panels on which are projected  country estates, sumptuous living rooms, verandas, landscapes, seascapes, and even the barricades of the 1848 revolution in Paris. Set in Russia and Europe from 1833 to 1865, when the seeds of revolt were being planted, the action centers upon Alexander Herzen, a socialist and humanist, and his fellow aristocrat Mikhail Bakunin, a revolutionist.

One of Stoppard greatest gifts as a playwright is the ability to make abstract ideas dramatic. When his play “Hapgood” considered quantum mechanics and then “Arcadia” explored chaos theory, it was said that Stoppard “flatters the audience by making them feel cleverer than they are.”   In “The Coast of Utopia,” using the metaphor of a sea voyage, and depicting actual voyages as well, Stoppard turns political thinking into stylish, witty dialogue that is delightful to hear and to ponder. At the same time he evokes family scenes that round out the characters as husbands, wives, parents, and lovers – eating, partying, or quarrelling.  Skeptical of anarchists who see bloodshed as a means to a brighter future, Herzen observes, “If we can’t arrange our own happiness, it’s a conceit beyond vulgarity to arrange the happiness of those who come after us.”   Meeting these historical characters and their families as living people, we leave the theater better understanding them and their philosophy. (Read more in Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers, which Stoppard consulted.)

Voyage

In the first play, Voyage, set in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the principals embark on their quest for the ideal, utopian society.  Wealthy landowners whose holdings are numbered by the thousands of serfs (or “souls”) they own, Bakunin (Douglas Henshall) and Herzen (Stephen Dillane) are intellectuals who view as morally wrong the tyranny the czar and the plight of the serfs.  Various paths are pondered as they seek for the way to that imaginary, ideal country, Utopia, or even to its coast.  “Who’s got the map?” is a recurrent question.

The repressive spirit that dominates Russia at the time provides much of the tension in “Voyage,” for there is severe censorship of the journals in which the men publish their utopian ideals, and read of others’.  One such publication, the Telegraph, is closed down because of an unfavorable review of a play that the czar favored.  Visssarion Belinsky (Will Keen) is an impassioned literary critic who believes literature has a sacred mission: “The Russian people…sees, in the writers of Russia,” he writes to Gogol, “its only leaders, defenders and saviors, from the darkness of Russian autocracy, orthodoxy, and nationalism.” Revolutionist Belinsky believes “destruction is a creative passion.” Herzen, exiled for his views, has been allowed to return home, but is confined to Russia.  Writer Ivan Turgenev (Guy Henry) also figures in the trilogy; his wit and his objectivity, presenting both sides of an argument, remind one of Stoppard. 

The principals change their political views as they change their locales. Finally granted a passport, Herzen goes to Paris, where the 1848 uprising is taking place, and after the initial celebrations, the protestors are shot down at the barricades. Bakunin declares this revolution “the happiest time of my life,” but the Russians’ expectations for the birth of a true democracy evaporate when the French choose Louis Napoleon as ruler.

Shipwreck

The second play’s title, Shipwreck, treats their dashed hopes and ends with an actual shipwreck in which Herzen suffers a family tragedy.  Storms herald domestic and national upheavals and contrast with pastoral settings, while music by Steven Edis provides an effective bridge between dissolving scenes.   The atmosphere of the first two plays is often Chekhovian, as Bakunin’s and Herzen’s families lounge, picnic, and converse.

In “Shipwreck,” Herzen’s wife, Natalie (Eve Best), is a free spirit, in love first with girlfriend Natasha (Lucy Whybrow) and then with handsome German radical poet George Herwegh (Raymond Coulthard).  To help Natasha marry her lover, Nicholas Ogarev (Simon Day),  Natalie visits his estranged wife (Felicity Dean) to plead for a divorce.  The opening scene in a garden, with women and children occupied by the everyday,  contrasts with later personal and political disruptions, signaled by storms.  Unaware of the affair between Natalie and Herwegh, Herzen invites him and his wife, Emma (Charlotte Emmerson), to share a house in Nice.

Almost in despair over the tragic loss of his son and mother and the failure of the second French revolution, Herzen defies an order to return to Russia and embarks for England.  On board ship, he meets (or dreams of) Bakunin and the two exchange their hopes for Russia.  Bakunin sees salvation in a revolution by the peasants, while deploring Karl Marx’s manifesto: “He’s such a townie, to him peasants are hardly people, they’re agriculture, like cows and turnips.”  Herzen hopes for Russian socialism, “We have to go to the people, bring them with us, step by step.  But Russia has a chance.  The village commune can be the foundation of true populism…self-government from the ground up.”

 The engrossing political thought gives way to an emotionally touching personal reflection by Herzen on the death of his son: “His life was what it was.  Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up.  But a child’s purpose is to be a child.  Nature doesn’t disdain what lives only for a day.  It pours the whole of itself into each moment.  We don’t value the lily less for not being made of flint and built to last.  Life’s bounty is in its flow, later is too late. Where is the song when it’s been sung? The dance when it’s been danced?”

Salvage

 The third play, Salvage, finds Herzen living in England and founding and writing for The Bell, the first free journal in Russian, with copies sent to Moscow.  He is living with friend Ogarev’s unstable wife, Natalie, and fathers her three children.  He plays host to many revolutionary refugees who have fled to London, including the Polish leader Worcell, Italian nationalist Mazzini, and the Hungarian leader in exile, Kossuth.   Bakunin and Herzen are again arguing the best course for Russia, Bakunin insisting,  “How can we make a new Golden Age and set men free again? By destroying everything that destroyed their freedom.”  Ogarev, arriving from Russia, reports that Herzen’s socialist ideas reported in his journal are having little effect: “Preaching socialism from London didn’t make you friends among your friends at home.”  And the younger Russian political thinkers disparage Herzen’s ideas.

“Salvage” opens and ends with a dream by Herzen.  At the beginning, the political émigrés in his dream voice their solutions – while realistic, everyday dialogue continues onstage.  In the final dream, Turgenev and Marx “have strolled into view like mismatched friends.”  Marx presents his Utopia, in which “a higher reality” is the hoped-for end, after flames and blood and corpses.  Herzen has the last word, and refutes Marx: “There is no libretto….We need wit and  courage to make our way while our way is making us.  But that is our dignity as human beings, and we rob ourselves if we pardon us by the absolution of historical necessity….A distant end is not an end but a trap.  The end we work for must be closer, the laborer’s wage, the pleasure in the work done, the summer lightning of personal happiness… Marx and Turgenev ignore him and stroll away.”

Trevor Nunn has done a magnificent job of directing this epic, with its multiple characters and  settings.  Designer William Dudley uses a revolving stage and moving backdrop panels on which computer-generated images rise from the floor to zoom and blend. Some of the most impressive stage pictures include an ice-skating rink, where graceful actors glide, and a fancy-dress party, where the metaphoric Ginger Cat materializes.  In his final dream, Herzen asks Marx, “What kind of beast is it, this Ginger Cat with its insatiable appetite for human sacrifice?”

The handsome period costumes, also by Mr. Dudley, subtly distinguish their wearers, from dandy Turgenev to the peasants in the first play and Blue Blouse in the second, “a desperate, motionless figure” who appears in Herzen’s stylish French living-room during the 1848 revolution and is asked,.  “What do you want?  Bread?  I’m afraid bread got left out of the theory.  We are bookish people, with bookish solutions.  Prose is our strong point, prose and abstraction.  But everything is going beautifully. . . .you can put your shirt on it which, I see, you have.”

All the actors mentioned above are impressive, eloquently clarifying dialogue that can be complicated as well as witty:  “a mixture of small talk and big talk,” as Mr. Nunn described it recently.  He also revealed that during rehearsal, one hour was cut from the over-all playing time (now eight and a half hours), and believes the three plays are best seen in chronological order   In presenting an unforgettable theater experience, Mr. Stoppard, the National Theatre, and all contributing to this production are to be congratulated  For Tom Stoppard’s life and works, see Major Modern Playwrights.