They say it's the sign of a good host to save the best wine 'til last, and Trevor Nunn seems to be following this line of thinking with his directorship of the National Theatre.
Richard Eyre's term as director saw a trilogy of plays by David Hare, and Nunn's — which ends in March 2003, when he hands over the reins to Nicholas Hytner — is ending with the commission and performance of a trilogy by Sir Tom Stoppard, arguably Britain's greatest living playwright and certainly its most intellectual one.
Stoppard, whose association with the National goes back 30 years, has written three plays — Voyage, Shipwreck and Salvage — under the generic title The Coast of Utopia.
Set in nineteenth-century Russia and moving chronologically on from the 1830's, when the great Romantic poet Pushkin was still alive and his epic poem "Eugene Onegin" was all the rage in educated circles, The Coast of Utopia examines the political and philosophical movements that excited the young and idealistic in the Russia — and, indeed, all Europe — of those days. One of the strongest themes in Voyage, which is now previewing in the Olivier auditorium at the National (all three plays will have a press day on Aug. 3, when they will be performed in sequence) is the interchange of ideas within the Europe of that time; the truly international nature of ideas, of politics and poetry.
However backward — as the leading young idealists of their generation claim several times in the course of the play — Russia may be, the irony is that educated Russians, like their Western counterparts, are entirely up to date and informed about the latest books, poems and ideas coming from England, France and Germany. They may despair of the political situation in Mother Russia, with its authoritarianism and censorship, but they have no problem in traveling around the continent and sharing ideas: Their problem is putting them into effect.
In this respect, the relevance of poetry to politics is particularly striking to a modern audience used to thinking of poetry as something rarefied and unconnected with everyday life. As Stoppard makes clear, Shelley was seen as a thinker as much as a poet, and the Romanticism which he espoused in his poetry and life (elopement, adultery, exile, beauty, dying young in Italy) was seen as having a direct bearing on young people's attitude to life, from Portugal to St. Petersburg.
Stoppard has never been afraid to write plays about ideas, however obscure to "mainstream" theatre audiences: He is a one-man negation of the idea that modern society invariably dumbs down. In Voyage he not only makes use of his interest in nineteenth-century philosophy, political movements and literary influences, he shows that all three are exciting, mind-stretching and profoundly important, rather than dry academic subjects.
—By Paul Webb Theatrenow