Voyage - Part 1 of The Coast of Utopia Trilogy
In recent years, when the National Theatre has wanted to have a commercial success, it has put on a blockbuster musical in the Olivier auditorium. It is very pleasing for lovers of serious theatre that this year's equivalent is a nine hour trilogy of plays of ideas based on the history of philosophy in the mid-19th Century.
This is not the first time that Tom Stoppard has selected a seemingly dry historical subject and then injected it with sparks of life that make it both accessible and entertaining. On the strength of the surprisingly light Voyage, he has succeeded again.
The first half of the play is set at the home of the Bakunin family. Father (John Carlisle) cannot understand his children while poor mother (Felicity Dean) cannot understand anything. Poor material to father four sensitive, clever daughters and a great philosopher.
The girls are all unlucky in love. They love men who don't love them and vice versa. Worse, they marry unwisely, if at all. This is despite the great intelligence of the oldest, Liubov (Eve Best) who falls for a philosopher friend of her brother, Stankevich (Raymond Coulthard). They are doomed to die before finding happiness.
The key players in this part are vain Michael Bakunin (Douglas Henshall) and stumbling, uncertain Belinsky (Will Keen). They are a real contrast.
Michael is impecunious and borrows as a sign of power over his friends. He changes philosophical "windbags" almost daily, promoting the theories of Schelling and Fichte, Kant and Hegel in succession.
Belinsky, outstandingly played by Will Keen, is a nervous literary critic (an oxymoron) who falls apart when he meets the Bakunuin sisters and, as a running gag that eventually gets overused, speaks no foreign languages.
Stoppard cleverly plays with time, the second act overlaps with the first and helps to explain some of its seeming mysteries. It is littered with the famous: Pushkin (an early JFK), Turgenev and Herzen all play minor parts.
Life in Russia is dangerous and an assortment of editors and philosophers offend the state, find their journals closed and are exiled. We are also shown short views of the hard life of the serfs. Estates are measured in "souls" i.e. the number of serfs that the landowner possesses.
Trevor Nunn directs something of a dream cast, maintaining pace throughout by bleeding scenes into each other. The only question mark over the direction relates to a couple of overly vacuous female members of the Bakunin family and the use of cod Russian accents by the family to show that they are speaking in English.
Nunn is greatly assisted by possibly the first computer generated stage set. William Dudley may use simple, traditional props but the backdrops are amazing. They use convincing, computerised graphics that allow him flexibility to move at will from location to location and to show panoramic views of rooms and gardens. This looks fantastic and is an insight into stage design in the future.
This is a good start to the trilogy, providing an unexpected level of humour and wearing its learning about history and philosophy lightly. As the playwright has said, it is also worthy to be seen as an individual play.
Voyage is playing until 23rd November.
Shipwreck (Part 2 of the Trilogy)
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher