Shipwreck - Part 2 of The Coast of Utopia Trilogy

Tom Stoppard
RNT Olivier
(2002)

The second part of The Coast of Utopia Trilogy moves into revolutionary times. It commences in the lead-up to the 1848 uprisings across Europe.

The focus is now upon Alexander Herzen (Stephen Dillane) and his family. The play starts at a dacha that he and his wife Natalie (Eve Best) have taken with their family and friends. Whereas the previous year there had been a harmonious holiday, now the poets and philosophers rather tediously bicker, often about banalities, like children. It is almost surprising from these exchanges, which only really fire on the subject of Mother Russia, that these are the men that gave rise to the term intelligentsia.

The Herzens are under an interesting kind of limited house arrest. They have been under surveillance for twelve years but have great wealth and freedom to do as they will, but only within Russia's borders.

As so many of Herzen's circle are in exile, he is thrown into debate with the rather strait-laced writer Ivan Turgenev (Guy Henry), who is torn between his work, his philosophy and an unrequited, noble love for an opera singer.

Finally, the government allows Herzen to travel to aid the health of his son. Kolya is deaf, a symbol of the impotence of his father and his friends. The family travels to Paris and takes to the high life with ease. They are aided in this by the appearance of European intellectuals like Karl Marx and George Herwegh and the return of old friends like Bakunin (Douglas Henshall) and the dying Belinsky (Will Keen). Bakunin comes into his own during the revolutions. Belinsky shows his genius as he predicts the rise of Russian literature through the work of Dostoyevsky, Gogol and Turgenev.

The group is in Paris during the failed revolution of 1848 and their various friends cross Europe and show the universality of the failures of the attempts to bring about rule by the masses. This is particularly stark in France as the Second Republic (and the end of true democracy) is voted in by the country despite a wide extension of suffrage. This mirrors some of the reactions to the fall of Communism in Europe in the last decade.

Much of this is delivered without the sparkle of Voyage. There are however, still many interesting ideas flying around particularly relating to Nationalism and the pros and cons of writing under a culture of censorship.

After the interval, as the Herzens become friendly with George and Emma Herwegh (Raymond Coulthard and Charlotte Emmerson), the play takes off as new themes emerge.

It becomes clear that the main subject of Shipwreck is freedom. This is debated by the philosophers and as Natalie moves centre stage, it also extends to feminism. Under the influence of a meeting with her friend Ogarev's former wife (Felicity Dean) she realises that what she regarded as daring freedom of action is no more than posturing. She then starts an affair with the stoic George Herwegh, a failed hero of the German revolution but remarkably handsome.

After much heartache, the families resolve their problems but then tragedy strikes as poor, deaf Kolya is killed in a shipping accident. The little boy bears a heavy symbolic weight as his death can be seen as a reflection on the failure of the young movements to overthrow the establishment during the middle of the 19th Century.

Once again designer William Dudley works wonders with graphics. He creates much of beauty, especially the various sea scenes in Nice, Naples and as Herzen leaves Europe. The tour de force though is a painstakingly accurate reproduction of Manet's Le Dejeuner sur L'Herbe as Turgenev begins to write A Month in the Country.

The highlights of this part are the wonderful debates and battles between Eve Best and Stephen Dillane as the Herzens. They move from intelligent and articulate argument to anguished battle both actors giving director Trevor Nunn excellent performances.

Salvage - Part 3 of the Trilogy

This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher