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Toby Young
Saturday 10th August 2002

The Coast of Utopia

The Spectator - 10th August 2002

As I staggered out of the National last Saturday, having been cooped up in there for almost 12 hours, I half-expected to be handed a T-Shirt saying, "I've seen The Coast of Utopia." Tom Stoppard's long-awaited new trilogy charts the lives of a group of 19th Century Russian intellectuals over three decades and it's so heavy going that for several hours at a stretch it feels like watching history unfold in real time. But if I was exhausted at the end of this gruelling ordeal, God knows how the actors must have felt. The Coast of Utopia is the most ambitious production the National has ever staged, with 30 actors playing 70 different roles. Some of the actors, such as Stephen Dillane and Douglas Henshall, are required to age 31 years over the course of the trilogy and they achieve this effect without having to use any make up. By 10.45pm on Saturday night, when the curtain mercifully came down for the last time, all the actors, as well as every member of the audience, looked as though they needed a fortnight's holiday in the Caribbean to recuperate.

The problem with The Coast of Utopia is that Stoppard doesn't deliver nearly enough lowbrow theatrical magic to bring these highbrows to life. It's got all the dry, academic stuff that Stoppard normally includes in his plays without any of the crowd-pleasing shenanigans that make them so much fun to watch. And if you're going to sit through three plays in succession, with each of them clocking in at approximately three hours, you desperately want a little fun.

Stoppard leaves you in no doubt that he's done his homework. It's taken him five years to produce this trilogy and you can practically smell the sweat on his domelike forehead. But he's concentrated his intellectual firepower on distilling various points of view rather than dramatising them. His historical figures take turns to mount their soapboxes and espouse their different philosophies without having first established themselves as interesting characters. The upshot is that you never really feel any emotional involvement in what's going on. It's less like being at the theatre than listening to a series of lectures on 19th Century political thought. Frankly, it would have been simpler--and quicker--to stay at home and read a textbook.

Even if you judge The Coast of Utopia as a lengthy dissertation rather than a piece of theatre it's not particularly successful. Stoppard first became interested in this subject matter while reading Isaiah Berlin's Russian Thinkers and he's embraced Berlin's rather shallow liberalism without a murmur of dissent. Berlin's view, which is echoed again and again in The Coast of Utopia, is that all schools of thought that revolve around a single, all-encompassing idea, whether it's the march of history or the triumph of reason, run aground when they come up against the "facts". Unfortunately, Berlin was notoriously vague when it came to defining what these "facts" were. Sometimes he meant "the crooked timber of humanity", to use Kant's phrase, while elsewhere he had something more philosophical in mind, such as his belief that it's impossible to prove that one political philosophy is superior to another--unless it's his own, of course. For some reason Stoppard thinks this muddle-headed relativism, which has never enjoyed much currency beyond Berlin's circle of admirers, is the last word in political wisdom.

Stoppard's one original contribution to Berlin's point of view is to include the philosophy of free love among the various credos that are incompatible with the "facts", thus providing him with an excuse to chronicle the turbulent love lives of his protagonists. Unfortunately, these storylines are never given proper room to develop and no sooner has a love affair sprung up between two characters than it fizzles out. It's as if Stoppard feels he has so much ground to cover on the intellectual front that he won't allow himself to linger on the more human material. He's like an impatient schoolmaster who's determined to finish a topic before the end of the lesson.

Up until now, Stoppard's genius has consisted in being able to serve up a platter of complicated ideas in a form that audiences find extremely palatable. In The Real Thing, for instance, the more demanding aspects of the play are expertly combined with old-fashioned dramatic wizardry to make for a really satisfying whole. It's this wizardry that's missing from The Coast of Utopia. Why has Stoppard chosen to leave it out? The only explanation I can think of is intellectual sloth. Contrary to appearances, it's the dramatically engaging aspects of Stoppard's plays that are the hardest thing to get right. Next to the difficulty of keeping an audience entertained, summarising the ideas of a group of 19th Century Russian thinkers is comparatively easy. Stoppard clearly knows his material backwards. But he hasn't bothered to perform the alchemy that can transform it into a satisfying theatrical experience.

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