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28 October 2014

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The Coast of Utopia
The Coast of Utopia
Stephen Dillane and Lucy Whybrow in Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia
spacer Our critic Mark Shenton finds intellectual and verbal fireworks igniting the National's biggest stage, the Olivier, as Tom Stoppard tells an epic story that features some 70 characters...
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On 'trilogy Saturdays', you can see all three plays in one go, which kicks off at 11am and doesn't end till almost 11pm, including a couple of 75 minute meal breaks (You can also see the plays separately on week nights).

It's without doubt a long haul, but definitely a rewarding one, that is by turns dense and daunting, exhilarating and infuriating!

National Theatre, Olivier
South Bank SE1
020 7452 3000
tube: Waterloo

National Theatre

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The Coast of Utopia (National Theatre, Olivier)
For the first time in the life of this section, my Hot Tickets this week are all part of the same massive event: the world premiere of three separate but sequential plays by Tom Stoppard, whom I dubbed last week Britain's brainiest playwright.

And so it proves, with intellectual and verbal fireworks igniting the National's biggest stage, the Olivier, as Stoppard tells an epic story that features some 70 characters, dozens of different locations and shifting time frames - and combines public and private themes with fierce debate.

The plays, covering a 33-year time span from 1833 to 1866, embrace a rich canvas of real-life Russian characters as they seek change, both in their political life and in their own personal pursuit of love and happiness.

The lead characters are anarchist Michael Bakunin (Douglas Henshall), writer Ivan Turgenev (Guy Henry), literary critic Vissarion Belinsky (Will Keen) and revolutionary thinker Alexander Herzen (Stephen Dillane).


In the first play, Voyage, we are introduced to Bakunin, his affluent family and idealistic friends on his country estate. Stoppard draws a wonderful, almost Chekhovian portrait of life there while setting the scene for what fuels this group's youthful ambitions.


The Coast of UtopiaThe second play, Shipwreck, shifts the focus to Herzen, and the action from Russia to Paris, where - against the backdrop of the 1848 revolution - the personal becomes political.

(It also allows director Trevor Nunn a reprise of his Les Miserables barricade scene). The philosopher Herzen becomes the mouthpiece for the search for a Utopia, but even as he strives to reach it, it eludes him in a series of personal catastrophes.


Finally, in the third play, Salvage - his family and ideals lost - Herzen finds solace amongst a community of Russian exiles in London, including Bakunin who has escaped from Siberia, and seen only briefly, Karl Marx.

Though these plays sometimes feel as if they've been written as much in the research library as in the creative furnace, there's also something rich and exciting about Stoppard's desire to convey so much knowledge and learning.

On the other hand, the trilogy might have been sharper if it were condensed a bit. But there's no doubting that the fluidity of Stoppard's ideas are more than matched by the fluidity of Nunn's stunning production, and the amazing ensemble performances he brings out. 

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