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Tom Stoppards Trilogy Utopia

Great Minds Talk Volumes as Mortality Intervenes

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August 21, 2002

Great Minds Talk Volumes as Mortality Intervenes


LONDON, Aug. 20 — Three little words open the floodgates: "Speaking of which. . . " This is the unexceptional phrase that so modestly begins "The Coast of Utopia," Tom Stoppard's engrossing and exasperating trilogy of plays at the Royal National Theater here about the intellectual forebears of the Russian Revolution.

The words are spoken by a dapper Russian landowner and patriarch, seated at the end of a well-appointed dinner table in 1833. The suggestion is that you have come upon the characters onstage in mid-conversation and that the conversation is likely to continue. That is a monumental understatement.

During the more than nine hours required to perform all three of its parts, "The Coast of Utopia" takes the love of a good argument to spectacular extremes unknown in the theater since the heyday of George Bernard Shaw. The explosive, eloquent characters in the beautifully acted production of Mr. Stoppard's new work, which has been directed in bravura style by Trevor Nunn, are not making small talk.

No, the talk is as big as talk gets. For what are being discussed are, among other things, the fate of a nation, the philosophy of knowledge, the nature of history, the role of literature, the limits of love and the as yet undiscovered social system by which people can live in harmony and equality. There is also an abiding pained consciousness that language — and "Utopia" speaks in various foreign tongues — is desperately inadequate.

"Words just lead you on," says one character. "They arrange themselves every which way," filled with "promises they can't keep." It is fitting that among the trilogy's several stunning coups de th´¼tre the most memorable involves a deaf child surrounded by thundering silence.

The view from the 21st century confirms of course that the debates that dominate "Utopia" are not winnable. But any awareness of such futility does not stop the arguments' participants — who have resonant names like Bakunin, Turgenev, Marx, Belinsky and Herzen — from continuing to inspire, inflame, enrage, adore and bore one another. In this respect theatergoers will find it very easy to identify with them.

"The Coast of Utopia" has received courteous but very mixed reviews here, with "ambitious" looming admiringly and damningly. Yet on the single Saturday on which I saw all three plays (a time commitment of roughly 12 hours, allowing for bolted meals at the National's coffee bars), there were cancellation lines for every show. And as far as I could tell, no one failed to return after any of the intermissions, although I heard a few people grumbling about Stoppard's penchant for overwriting.

"The Coast of Utopia" deserves to be popular, though not for the reasons you might expect. It's not that the play's historical insights, which in truth aren't all that original, are good for you, like a high-fiber diet for the brain. Or that the Stoppardian epigrams (planted amid some frankly tedious speech making) sparkle.

What keeps audience members in their seats is Mr. Stoppard's passion and Mr. Nunn's gift for translating that heat into vibrantly human performances. They are provided by a superb cast led by the magnetic Stephen Dillane (a Tony winner for the revival of Mr. Stoppard's "Real Thing") as Alexander Herzen, the 19th-century radical theorist and editor, and Eve Best, an emotional powerhouse as Herzen's wife.

The pleasures of "Utopia," which is presented as a fairly straightforward narrative by Stoppard standards, are those of a fat novel that for all its long-windedness is a page turner.

From his "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" (1967) to "The Invention of Love" (1997), Mr. Stoppard has consistently assumed the role of the playwright as super-student, luxuriating in the joys of research and in the opportunity to take every side of a question. In this sense he is very much like the ever-searching intellectuals of "Utopia" who have, above all, the courage of their contradictions.

The plays ("Voyage," "Shipwreck" and "Salvage") follow an elastic set of adversarial friends over 25 years, from their shared, largely privileged youth in Russia to exile in Western Europe. It is a period during which the survivors age severely (and most convincingly, by theatrical standards). Yet as their role models shift from Schelling to Kant to Hegel to Marx, they hold on to an adolescent combativeness and a precocious student's enthusiasm for new ideas.

That "Utopia" feels shaped by the same sensibility accounts for much of what is wonderful and annoying in the plays. Despite its leisurely length, there is a quality of breathlessness throughout the trilogy, like that of a man who has so much to say, he fears his tongue will never keep up with his mind.

There is also the sometimes suffocating feeling of Mr. Stoppard as a researcher who is so enamored of his material that he cannot bear to leave out a single good anecdote he has come across. "Voyage," the first part of the trilogy, is by the far the most artfully arranged and judiciously edited of the three. But even as the work, like its characters, grows more ragged with time, it never comes close to collapsing.

The energy isn't only cerebral. Like "The Invention of Love," a portrait of the poet A. E. Housman, "Utopia" aches with an awareness of the irreconcilable tensions between ideas and mortal substance.

The mind can never fully impose itself upon or transcend life itself, as Herzen comes to accept; real life is too wayward and people too varied for that. "Utopia" both laments and celebrates this condition.

The ways in which Mr. Nunn's production achieves this double tone are ravishing. With the help of David Hersey's virtuosic lighting, William Dudley — who designed the sets, costumes and videos — brilliantly keeps "Utopia" in heady visual flight as it segues from a Russian dacha to the ballrooms of Moscow and St. Petersburg to the streets of Paris in 1848 and finally to the staggering assortment of houses in England and on the Continent that Herzen called home.

The idea of a world in unstoppable motion is conveyed most literally by an immense turntable, which takes up most of the stage of the Olivier Theater and which revolves obligingly to change the audience's perspective on a scene. Behind, on a cycloramic screen, are projected beautifully wrought images of landscapes and architecture that meld ingeniously with the more solid elements of the set.

The impression is of flux and things ephemeral, which makes the of-the-moment vividness of the performances all the more poignant. The ensemble members, who number several dozen in some 70 roles, are remarkably accomplished portraitists. They bring to fruition the impulse that must have inspired Mr. Stoppard to create their characters, that sense of gleeful curiosity that can overtake a reader when one fine detail suddenly brings a historical figure to life.

It should be pointed out that these performances and Mr. Nunn's staging go a long way in providing the novelistic richness and empathy of "Utopia." Unlike much of Mr. Stoppard's work, "Utopia" lives far more compellingly on the stage than on the page.

To cite standouts is to some degree arbitrary, since nearly everyone is first rate. But I find I'm still especially haunted by Douglas Henshall, who makes inevitable the fatuous but ardent Bakunin's transformation from aristocrat into anarchist; Will Keen, who manages to be both tongue-tied and irresistibly verbose as the literary critic Belinksy; and Ms. Best, who brings a heartbreaking quality of longing and frustrated fire to three different roles that speak eloquently of what it meant to be a woman in those times, among those men.

There are also, at the show's center, two men who embody different approaches to the relativism that shapes "Utopia": the passionately engaged and arrogant Herzen and the elegantly detached and equally arrogant novelist Turgenev, impeccably embodied by Mr. Dillane and Guy Henry. Both have more than a little in common with Mr. Stoppard.

Consider the following dialogue: "To value what is relative to your circumstances, and let others value what's relative to theirs — you agree with me," Turgenev says, toward the trilogy's end, to Herzen, who answers him fiercely. "But I fought my way here with loss of blood," he says, "because it matters to me, and you're in my ditch, reposing with your hat over your face, because nothing matters to you very much."

The exchange is thoroughly typical of "Utopia." It is also throughly typical that the argument cannot be completed, both because one of Herzen's daughters has run into the room in a tantrum and because Turgenev's stomach hurts.

Life will keep barging in on the loftiest discussions and the most intricate metaphors. Which is why in the end you are likely to stay on board for the long, long journey that is "Utopia."

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