Stoppard Trilogy, The Cost of Utopia, To Premiere at London's National

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One of Britain's most distinguished playwrights, Sir Tom Stoppard, will return centerstage with the production of the trilogy of plays that Trevor Nunn commissioned him to write for the National.

Under the overall heading of The Coast of Utopia, the three plays — which Nunn will direct — are Voyage, Shipwreck and Salvage.

These three sequential plays tell an epic story of romantics and revolutionaries caught up in the struggle for political freedom in Tsarist Russia, beginning in the reign of Nicholas I, a ruler noted for his repressive attitude to politics and intellectual freedom.

The main characters are the idealist and anarchist Michael Bakunin (played by Douglas Henshall) who was to challenge Marx (played by Paul Ritter) for the soul of the masses; Ivan Turgenev (played by Guy Henry), author of some of the most enduring works in Russian literature; the brilliant, erratic young critic Vissarion Belinsky (played by Will Keen) and Alexander Herzen (played by Stephen Dillane, who won the 1999 Evening Standard Best Actor award for the revival of Stoppard's The Real Thing at the Donmar Warehouse), a nobleman's son and the first self-proclaimed socialist in Russian history, who become the main focus of a drama of politics, love, loss and betrayal. The action, involving more than 50 characters, takes place in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Paris, Nice and London.

The epic nature of the plays and the intellectual and political ideas that are represented within them rely on the erudition of the playwright as well as his skill with words. Stoppard's extraordinary ability to write about philosophy and abstract ideas — bringing in discussions of rareified artistic movements or mathematical probabilities into challenging but witty and well-plotted plays — makes him uniquely suited to this task.

That he has a lightness of touch that makes a string of literary and cultural allusions enetrtaining, in the exact opposite of the current trend for dumbing down in order to make literature "accessible," was demonstrated in Shakespeare in Love, the multiple Oscar-winning film starring Joseph Fiennes and Gywneth Paltrow (which earned Stoppard an Oscar for the screenplay and Judi Dench one for her role as Elizabeth I), about a fictional romance between the young Shakespeare and an Elizabethan lady, which sparks the writing of both Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night.

Shakespeare was the inspiration for Stoppard's first commecial success, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; with his customary intellectual and verbal fireworks, he imagined Hamlet as seen from the perspective of two hapless minor characters who lose their lives in the course of Shakespeare's greatest play.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was produced in 1967 by the National Theatre (then at the Old Vic), thus beginning an association with the National that further developed in the 1970's with the NT's productions of Jumpers and Travesties.

Stoppard's other plays have included his sophisticated spoof on The Mousetrap and similar plays, The Real Inspector Hound (seen last year in a 1960's double bill at the Comedy Theatre with Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy). More recently, Arcadia, set in a Regency country house and looking at the nature of literary critcism, poetry and mathematics, and Indian Ink, a play which looked at the interaction between British and Indian cultures, and was partly based on his wartime evacuation as a child to India.

For all his Englishness, the product of a middle-class childhood in colonial Singapore and the British Raj, Stoppard was born in Czechoslovakia, and there is a very central European feel to his interest in philosophy and the world of ideas. This connection also resulted in a passionate interest in the plight of dissidents behind the Iron Curtain during the period of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, and he worked closely with organizations like Index on Censorship and Amnesty International.

Previews for Voyage start on June 27, Shipwreck on July 8, and Salvage on July 19. Press day for the trilogy is August 3.

—By Paul Webb Theatrenow