Coast of Utopia : Voyage; Shipwreck and Salvage

Monday, 5 August, 2002
Review by: 
Alan Bird

The world premiere of Tom Stoppard’s “The Coast of Utopia” which comprises three sequential but self-contained plays: Voyage, Shipwreck and Salvage, opened today at the National Theatre. The plays are directed by Trevor Nunn who also directed Stoppard’s “Arcadia” at the National that was the winner of the 1994 Laurence Olivier Award for best play.

The cast reads like a role call of great theatrical stars: Stephen Dillane, John Carlisle, Eva Best, Douglas Henshall, Lucy Whybrow and many more. Throughout the three plays the acting was excellent, and there was not one bad performance the whole day.

The trilogy follows the exploits of a group of Russian intelligentsia that lament against the backwardness of Tsarist Russia and seek solace in Schelling, Kant, Fichte and Hegel. However, the realities of life in Tzarist Russia turns them from passive philosophers that merely seeks to understand the world into revolutionaries who wish to change it. As one of the characters says, “Poverty, injustice, censorship, whips and scorns, the law’s delays? The Minister for Public Instruction? Russia? …How did we miss it?”

This epic drama of Russian exiled romantics and revolutionaries spread over three plays and nine hours is great literature. Stoppard is a master wordsmith whose lyrical skill with words and ideas makes for exquisite theatre. One is treated to a utopian journey of theatrical delights. Like any utopia it cannot completely satisfy and as one makes the nine-hour journey, there are times when you feel shipwrecked upon the shores of boredom and triviality. However, it is not long before the play is salvaged and one continues the voyage!

The Stage design is simple and elegant. Lighting is used to project images of houses, countryside and even the La Place de la Concorde in Paris, on to white panels that circulate the back of the stage. This allows for some marvellous settings, with very little in the way of props. Furniture is quickly moved on and off the stage effortlessly, which allows one scene to flow smoothly to the next.

Each of the three plays are self-contained and there is no need to see all three, though I personally would advise that you do so. However, if you decide not to see the whole trilogy, then I would definitely recommend you see the first play “Voyage”, which is by far the superior. “Shipwreck” also stands by itself, and is worth a visit. However, avoid “Salvage”, it is the most leisurely of the three plays in pace and you will certainly be impeded from obtaining the most enjoyment from this play if you have not seen the other two.

Michael is a romantic who is adored by his sisters whom he instructs in the philosophy of Idealism. He believes himself to be above such earthly passions as physical love and family kinship. Michael hates egoism and yet his narcissistic shadow oppresses his family and friends. At one point his mother says in despair “Now he thinks he is God!” When Michael later discovers Ficht’s philosophy, it comes as no surprise to hear him say, “The world is nothing but the impress of my Self. The Self is everything; it’s the only thing. At last a philosophy that makes sense!” That is until he discovers Hegel.

Michael’s sisters, despite his attempts to persuade them of the virtues of romantic idealism, are instead infatuated by the more earthly romantic desires that they read about in the novels of George Sands. Liubov is in love with Nicholas Stankevich, whilst Tatiana admires Balinsky, two of Michael’s friends. This mixture of idealism and romance lends itself to some wonderfully charming and comical moments.

However, this mixture of idealism and denial of earthly realities begins to loose its attraction when Michael and his philosophically inclined friends have to deal with the realities of life in Tzarist Russia. When Balinsky, a literary critic, publishes an article by the philosopher Peter Chaadaev that attacks the backwardness of Russian society he soon attracts the attention of the secret police. Michael discovers that deserting his army post does little to liberate his ‘free’ spirit or earn his fathers approval and more importantly wealth.

Finally, we are introduced to the revolutionary Alexander Herzan. Herzan with his original thinking and compassionate concern for the welfare of Russia, especially that of the Russian serfs quickly explains how Hegelian philosophy is not idealist but instead is about the inevitable clash of people against the absurdities of history. He exclaims, “Hegel is the algebra of revolution!”

Just has Herzal is disappointed by the events in Paris, so his own personal life takes a similar down turn. His wife Natalie is a romanticist who idealises love. A love that is willing to break with family, friends, reputation etc, to be true to itself. When George Herwegh, a radical poet and his wife Emma move into Herzal’s home he plays upon Natalie’s ideals and she falls in love with him.

Herzal is forced into self-exile, no longer welcome in Russia, and not wanted in Paris. Like many of the revolutionary leaders of 19th century Europe he travels to London. On his way he meets up with the anarchist Michael Bukunin who is himself in exile and travelling to London. On the boat Bakunin asks Herzal “Where is the map?” to which Herzal replies “Nobody’s got the map. In the West, socialism may win next time, but it is not histories destination. Socialism, too, will reach its own extremes and absurdities, and once more Europe will burst at the seams. … Are you sorry for civilisation? I am sorry for it, too?”

His family routine is interrupted with the arrival of Nicholas and Natalie Ogarev. Natalie used to be the best friend of Alexander’s deceased wife and instantly begins to interfere with the raising of the children. Nicholas is also Alexander’s best friend, ever since the time, when they where only 13 years old and they made a vow to revenge the Decemberists: a Russian revolutionary group that was mercilessly destroyed by the Tzar.

Gradually, Natalie and Alexander fall in love. Nicholas meanwhile has fallen in love with Mary Sutherland, a prostitute with which he fathers a son, Henry. However, it is not long before Natalie becomes racked by guilt, convinced that Nicholas has turned to drink because of her actions and that she has betrayed the trust of her dead friend Natalie Hergez, Alexander’s deceased wife. Natalie becomes more and more hysterical and the family home becomes a miserable prison for all of them.

Alexander, however, is able to find escape in the meetings of the exiled revolutionaries that continue in his home. He pays for the setting up of a free Polish and also a free Russian press. For the first time, revolutionary material that has been censured in Russia is being published and smuggled into the country. However, this does not please all of Alexander’s former comrades in Russia. Alexander is now calling for peaceful progress and is using the Russian Free Press to make appeals for the Tzar to emancipate the serf’s before violent revolution drowns Russia in a chaotic sea of blood.

Alexander finds himself no longer considered a radical let alone a revolutionary. As he grows older, the younger generation of radicals grow bolder in their dreams of a bloody socialist revolution. He uses his energy to warn of the dangers of replacing one dictatorship, that of the Tzar, for another, the revolutionary leaders. In his meeting with the Russian revolutionary Chernyshevesky he warns, “Who will do the organising? Oh, but of course! – you will! The revolutionary elite.” He goes on to say, “What if the peasants don’t want you? … Will you coerce them for their own good? Will you be their little Father? You’ll need some help. You might have to have your own police force.”

Eve Best as Natalie Herzal gives a warm, loving, and lamenting performance. Raymond Coulthard also gives a great performance as George, the egotistical, spoilt poet who naively seeks to be idolised. Will Keen plays the part of Belinsky with a wonderful mixture of trepidation, animation and fervour. Also worth mentioning is Ian Mitchell who is marvellous as the kind, genteel philosopher Peter Chaadaev.

The Coast of Utopia is a theatrical feast, covering the hopes and dreams of a visionary group of people as they seek to overthrow the injustices of 19th century society. The characters are portrayed vividly, and attention is not lost to the detail of their private lives in the description of the wider social context. There is much to think about, some things to laugh about and everything to enjoy in all three of these marvellous plays.


What other critics had to say.....

BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Refreshingly ambitious.....But the trilogy has its longueurs, its dips of energy, its relentlessly protracted arguments." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Excellent in parts but less than Utopian." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "Stoppard's magnificent spectacle - just the five hours too long." ALASTAIR MACAULAY for THE FINANCIAL TIMES says, "I find this trilogy beautiful....The meanings of the play cohere as you watch, not as narrative but as poetry, and keep growing in recollection." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GIUARDIAN says, "It opens up the subject of revolution while being politically partial. And it contains passages of breathtaking beauty and surprising ordinariness." NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Nothing of such intellectual ambition, such daring or epic scope has marked the National Theatre's thirty-eight year history as this brain-storm trilogy of plays by Tom Stoppard." JOHN THAXTER for THE STAGE says, "Stoppard's three plays lack a simple narrative drive and it seems likely that only Voyage, the most Chekhovian, will enjoy regular revivals."

External links to full reviews from newspapers...

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