Stoppard's Coast of Utopia Opens at U.K.'s National Theatre

News   Stoppard's Coast of Utopia Opens at U.K.'s National Theatre

Sir Tom Stoppard's The Coast Of Utopia opened to an enthusiastic if exhausted audience, who sat through some nine hours of theatre (three plays of about three hours each).

The trilogy was a gamble, particularly as each play is so closely related to the other that seeing just one of them (especially if you haven't seen the first) doesn't make all that much sense.

In that respect, Stoppard's trilogy is radically different from the great trio of plays that David Hare wrote for the National in the 1990's.

Another fundamental difference is that Hares' work specifically addressed the state of the (British) nation, whereas Stoppard's trilogy is European in breadth and feel, and is centered on mid-nineteenth century Tsarist Russia. Stoppard has always been fascinated by continental European history and ideas, and the Coast of Utopia is the culmination of decades of exploring philosophical and political ideas, an exploration that has made him as in demand as an essayist or lecturer as a playwright.

The critical reaction to The Coast Of Utopia has been mixed, with The Evening Standard praising it unreservedly while the Guardian refers to its as "heroically ambitious and wildly uneven"; the Times regrets the "longeurs, its dips of energy, its relentlessly protracted arguments," yet also finds it "refreshingly ambitious" and refers to director Trevor Nunn's "usual skill" and concludes that "Stoppard's piece does sing. You leave it sated, exhausted, impressed." The Daily Telegraph also refers to Stoppard's "ambition" but concludes, after praising a number of individual performances with the trilogy that "this awesomely dramatic canvas must be counted a courageous failure rather than a knock-out success."

Reaction to the play is clearly in the eye (and seat) of the beholder, but all the critics agree on the ambition and sweep of these three plays. And this, surely, is the point.

Only the National could have commissioned and staged such an epic work. The Director designate, Nicholas Hytner, said at the press conference announcing his appointment that he wanted to use the National's capacity for staging large-scale work, that he was fascinated by "epic theatre."

The National's presentation of these three plays by one of the country's leading and most intellectually challenging playwrights demonstrates that it is doing exactly what a state-subsidized National Theatre should be doing — presenting the best of British theatre in a way that commercial managements simply couldn't afford and therefore wouldn't contemplate. To do so in a year when, at the other extreme, Nunn's National has also built and programmed the innovative and exciting Transformation season centered around the fringe-style Loft theatre space, shows that the National is on extraordinarily good form.

The range of work produced under Trevor Nunn, the mixture of crowd pleasing (and commercially as well as artistically successful) musicals like South Pacific and Oklahoma!, with huge-cast/epic set/rarely performed modern plays like John Osborne's Luther, has been astonishing.

Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia is entirely in keeping with this very varied, artistically daring and culturally confident program, and with several of the all-day marathons already sold out, it looks as if the playwright will have little trouble in finding an audience for his high-brow tour of Tsarist Russia and the communities of exiles that fled it for the freedom and challenge of life in France and England.

—By Paul Webb Theatrenow