Salvage - Part 3 of the Coast of Utopia Trilogy
After a slightly slow start, Salvage really explodes and is a worthy end to Tom Stoppard's trilogy of plays about philosophy, poets and politics in mid-19th century Europe.
This play follows Alexander Herzen (Stephen Dillane giving a second excellent performance) to London with the sad remains of his family. He is now joined by a stream of politicians exiled from many countries after the 1848 revolutions. They are all potentially powerful but have little true influence. They do have much fun at the expense of each other and their English hosts.
In fact, Herzen himself emerges with his partner, the vividly epileptic Ogarev (Simon Day), as perhaps the most influential. By setting up a magazine which seeks change in Russia, they are the only available mouthpiece for radicals and revolutionaries. Ultimately it is they who play a large part in creating the conditions that allow the emancipation of the serfs. This is not the success that it should be but that is an economic inevitability.
On the personal front, the two men have a minor problem as Ogarev's wife, Natalie (Lucy Whybrow), falls for Herzen and a second uncomfortable menage a trois develops. While living with both men, one her husband, the ever guilty Natalie manages to bear three of the other's children.
This play is also notable for the reappearance of Turgenev in London. In middle age, he finally develops into a fascinating and witty man, allowing Guy Henry to give the kind of humorous performance that his character's limitations prevented in Voyage and Shipwreck. This reaches its apotheosis as he fires a shotgun at the Fulham "bird-life".
He is also witness to an even greater highlight than previously produced by designer William Dudley. The Olivier Award for best designer must already be a foregone conclusion and, if by any chance it wasn't, the storm at sea in Salvage is a really breathtaking and terrifying effect.
As Herzen and Ogarev age, younger lions come on to the scene and challenge them. The partners are wise enough to understand that this is inevitable. They are still able to wield influence and their old friends (and the audience's by now) reappear, including Bakunin (Douglas Henshall), the same as ever even after long years of imprisonment in Siberia.
Salvage summarises Herzen's life and the trilogy, by his meeting with Marx and Turgenev, representing its two poles (politics and poetry respectively). It ends with a hopeful speech about the future from Herzen but as Stoppard has already demonstrated, long-term hope must always be tempered by the need to weather the storms along the way.
Stoppard's writing rarely flags, combining a feel for language and poetry with a sense of humour. The acting from a high quality cast is always good, led by Will Keen, Stephen Dillane and Eve Best. Trevor Nunn ensures that interest is maintained through the 9½ hours and makes very good use of the Olivier's rotating stage and William Dudley's effects.
The scripts have been written as single self-contained plays so it is possible to get a taste if the whole trilogy seems too daunting. The choice of play may depend on the individual's sphere of interest. As a rough guide, Voyage for philosophers, Shipwreck for romantics and Salvage for politicians.
Overall, this trilogy has been an entertaining success and it may well become a classic. Unless dumbing down continues, it will certainly be on academic curricula in the very near future.
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher