In an age in which many playwrights are inclined to think small, Tom Stoppard deserves credit for daring to be big: Clocking in at more than nine hours — the daylong press opening ran to 12 hours, meal breaks included — his theatrical trilogy “The Coast of Utopia” occupies historic theatrical ground inextricably linked to Trevor Nunn’s production of it. The Royal National Theater has presented trilogies before, from “The Mysteries” on two separate occasions to the David Hare trio of plays culminating with “The Absence of War” in 1993. The difference is that in those instances, the various plays were premiered sequentially over time (3½ years in the case of the Hare trio). Not so with Stoppard’s alternately exhilarating and exhausting chronicle of the 19th-century Russian intelligentsia, which roams across 32 turbulent years and numerous European capitals before coming to rest at the end of the optimistically titled “Salvage” with the single Russian word, “Da.”
Whether theatergoers will lend their own affirmation is sure to depend more than usual on individual taste, not to mention one’s tolerance for what occasionally resembles a blueprint for a particularly highbrow TV miniseries skillfully displaced to the stage. At its best, “Coast” shares the rich affective ebb and flow — that sense of life and thought jointly caught on the wing — that one recalls from such previous Nunn immersions into things Russian as “Summerfolk,” which Stoppard’s trilogy opener, “Voyage,” often shimmeringly evokes. (Not only Gorky but Chekhov, too: As might be expected from a dramatist who wrote his own version of “The Seagull” in 1997, “Voyage” in particular has its Trigorin and Trofimov equivalents, to name just a few of Stoppard’s more obvious Chekhovian antecedents. Oh, and a spinning top plucked straight from “Three Sisters.”) And when “Coast” seems to run aground — seriously so, during the opening halves of both the second and third plays — the trilogy benefits, as such events often do, from a cumulative intrigue. How will time respond to the rhetorical question first posed in “Voyage” by a then 22-year-old Alexander Herzen (Stephen Dillane): “What is wrong with this picture?”
The movingly equivocal answer comes more than seven hours later to the same man in middle age, a Socialist firebrand by this point schooled in personal grief and political disaffection and expatriated amid considerable wealth to London. (In those days, it evidently paid to be a man of ideas.) Herzen barely features in the first play, but he comes to dominate the second and third. And so it is at the end of “Salvage” that Herzen seems to have morphed into a more self-knowing 19th-century equivalent to Candide. What is wrong with the picture that is daily offered up by life? Everything, of course, and nothing, as befits a world where, says Herzen, “We need wit and courage to make our way while our way is making us.” Whereas the poet A.E. Housman in Stoppard’s last play, the similarly biographical “The Invention of Love,” finds himself “standing on [an] empty shore,” the dry land arrived at in “Coast of Utopia” is poignantly attainable: “the pleasure in the work done,” muses Herzen, “the summer lightning of personal happiness.”
Such moments honor the poet in Stoppard, as do lines that catch at the heart: “Another sunset — another season nearer God,” concludes Alexander Bakunin (the ever-expert John Carlisle), the acid-tongued landowner-father of Michael Bakunin (Douglas Henshall), the anarchist here depicted as a scraggly-haired Hegelian surrounded by a veritable harem of worshipful sisters. (At table, they like nothing better than to quote George Sand.) “Voyage” gets enormous mileage — and has Stoppard’s usual fun with structure — juxtaposing the romantic and philosophical gyrations of life on Bakunin pere‘s country estate with the same decade as it is being lived under a fearful Tsarist rule in cities where -isms come easily but real progress does not. In “poor behind-the-times Russia,” what chance can there be of moving forward, given that all the real action is happening elsewhere (Germany and France)?
It’s when Stoppard narrows the focus that some of the juice gets squeezed out of a panorama that designer William Dudley’s CGI-rich video projections and minimally laden turntable set keep spinning from one hotbed of thought to another. (The Isle of Wight tableau in “Salvage” is quite amazing.) One can’t blame Dudley for the heavy sense during “Shipwreck” of a “Les Miz” deja vu that hangs over the re-creation of Paris during the 1848 Revolution, just as the metaphoric emphasis in “Voyage” on a “ginger cat” leads Nunn down a directorial blind alley that seems beholden to, yes, “Cats.”
As the attention devolves to Herzen, one finds oneself missing the novelistic breadth that in “Voyage” keeps so many people on the boil, among them the literary critic Belinsky, whom a fierce-eyed Will Keen makes a figure of clownish yet coruscating passion: So good is the quavery-voiced Keen (a dead ringer, on photographic evidence, for the part he plays) that something essential in the trilogy seems diminished once Belinsky dies.
All the actors deserve applause on the basis of stamina alone, the four players who sustain their parts throughout — Henshall, for instance, playing a comically self-deluded revolutionary worn out by his own fervor — as protean in their abilities as the principals handed a different assignment in each play. The latter group is headed by the wonderful Eve Best, whose open-faced expressiveness — so essential to Nunn’s “Cherry Orchard” several seasons ago — seems so properly Russian. In “Salvage,” Best switches nationalities (and accents) to play Malwida von Meysenbug, the German exile who enters the Herzen household following extensive loss of life to his family in the shipwreck that gives the second play its all too resonant title. Guy Henry, looking reedier than ever, goes sorrowfully gray as Turgenev but not before meeting the real-life inspiration for the nihilist Bazarov in “Fathers and Sons.”
With mortality and adultery fueling those sections of the narrative that aren’t trading tenaciously held theses, “The Coast of Utopia” can at times seem a rather scattershot picaresque, as if Stoppard were parceling out years of research across so many peccadilloes rather than probing his characters (not to mention a continent’s intellectual foundations) from within. If “The Invention of Love” sometimes seemed too tightly packed (a problem that seemed to vanish when that play reached New York), the trilogy sprawls in ways that aren’t just geographical. Was the playwright, one wonders, writing to fill the hours allotted, and might less have been more?
At the same time, there’s no other living dramatist who could find so much wit in dystopic despair (a commandingly sardonic Dillane — the Tony-winning lead of Broadway’s 2000 revival of “The Real Thing” — brings down the house in “Shipwreck” by simply speaking the words “middle class”), while leaving an audience lost in admiration at his breadth and scholarship, from the writings of the late Isaiah Berlin (“Russian Thinkers”) outwards.
What does it mean to be human? Why, and to what purpose, do we continue to hope? Those are the lasting concerns raised by “The Coast of Utopia,” which is clever enough to know that some questions can only be answered in the sheer questing that is life, before we all, reaching our individual sunsets, come to shore.