LONDON—With the Coast of Utopia trilogy—Tom Stoppard’s first work for the stage since The Invention of Love in 1997—lavishly mounted at London’s National Theatre, the onetime Voice writer and playwright is riding high. The enfant terrible who burst on the scene in 1966 with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (asked what it was about, he famously quipped, “It’s about to make me rich”) has long been part of the British establishment, renowned for his verbal ebullience and formidable intellect—”He’s got a brain the size of Venus,” as one Utopia cast member admiringly puts it. Gleefully taking advantage of his position—name another author who could get three three-hour plays produced simultaneously—Stoppard offers a sprawling meditation on the individual’s responsibility in an unjust society (or, pace Nick Hornby, how to be good).
Depicting real-life figures (the product of seven years’ research), the trilogy—Voyage, Shipwreck, and Salvage—teems with conflicting notions about art, revolution, love, and morality, as voiced by an elite group of Russian thinkers under successive czarist regimes. The liveliest piece, Voyage, moves between 1830s Moscow and a pastoral country estate: the world of thought and the world of feeling. Young Michael Bakunin (Douglas Henshall), the spendthrift scion of landed gentry, cares only for discussing philosophy with his friends, including the novelist Ivan Turgenev (Guy Henry), while his four sisters yearn for romance. Captivating all is Vissarion Belinsky (Will Keen), an impassioned literary critic whose cracking voice and twitchy nerdiness suggest a tubercular Tobey Maguire. Normally tongue-tied, he comes alive when expounding on the place of literature in a country where censorship and serfdom stifle any dissent. “How should we live?” he cries. In a post-Enlightenment age of uncertainty, everyone wants to know the answer.
Finding the emotions behind Stoppard’s thorny language, Keen, Henshall, and Henry deliver fierce yet nuanced performances; the latter two recently gave the Voice an inside look at the making of Utopia. Since the ensemble of 30 actors knew nothing about the period, Stoppard and director Trevor Nunn (of Cats, Les Miz, and Royal Shakespeare Company fame) enlisted specialist Aileen Kelly to lecture them on Russian history. In addition, Henshall reports, they received “loads of background material,” with copies kept in the rehearsal studio for browsing. (Inspired by Kelly’s biography of Bakunin, Henshall offered to don a fat suit onstage to replicate the man’s embonpoint—a choice he now regrets: “It’s like wearing a lined duvet.”) Throughout the three months of rehearsals, Stoppard interpreted, often line by line, the arcane philosophies his characters express. His presence, Henry confesses, was nerve-racking, yet the author was “always ready to help, and immensely encouraging.” Both actors rave about Stoppard’s generosity and lack of pretension, recalling how he willingly wrote new material at Nunn’s behest. “Tom’s a serial rewriter,” adds Henshall, “because he sets the bar so high for himself.”
The circular set (designed by William Dudley) revolves during scenes, so a replica was installed in the studio for practice, while the actresses wore petticoats to simulate their bulky stage costumes. Nothing could prepare them, however, for the rigors of performing the entire trilogy in one day, a stunt repeated nine times during the show’s run. (The separate plays are in repertory the other nights, through October.) Henry deems trilogy days a mixture of the boring and the terrifying—in a word, “doolally.” (Translation: insane.) Revealing that several cast members play poker between scenes to stay loose, Henshall says he relies on adrenaline to get by. Keeping his juices going for nine hours may be hard, but, after all, “it’s hard on the audience’s arses, too.”
Though both thesps refer to their roles as “journeys” (some sort of Nunn-speak?), Shipwreck and Salvage in fact focus on the wealthy socialist Alexander Herzen. Fleeing Russia for the freedom of Europe, he publishes radical newspapers urging the emancipation of the serfs. As Bakunin, Belinsky, Turgenev, and assorted revolutionaries stop by, Herzen denounces their theories, preaching that all ideologies lead to tyranny (think Stalin). He’s right, but the disparity between his cushy life of “political exile” and the serfs’ unseen suffering never gets resolved: It’s easy to advocate moderation from the comfort of one’s Swiss château. And if the activist Bakunin is a misguided fool, at least he does something (landing in a Siberian camp, then an Italian prison, for his pains); Herzen merely sits in his study, hectoring all comers.
Last seen on Broadway in the 2000 Tony-winning revival of Stoppard’s The Real Thing, Stephen Dillane flounders in the difficult role of Herzen, invariably bellowing his endless diatribes. The script gives him so much airtime that other parts seem underwritten, particularly the female ones. (“It’s a woman’s purpose to be worshiped . . . to be an incarnation of the Ideal!” exclaims a lovelorn girl—accurate for 1836, but hardly illuminating.) Even Turgenev, the well-meaning artist most akin to Stoppard, gets short-changed; as Henry notes, he basically “says the same thing at the end as at the beginning.” And, over the course of the trilogy, so does Stoppard. Asked in a TV interview whether his work played fast and loose with history, the author called his method, on the contrary, “very slow and tight.” Perhaps he should have taken more liberties with the facts—The Coast of Utopia, for all its eloquence, has surprisingly little to say.