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Tuesday, 13 August, 2002, 10:38 GMT 11:38 UK
The Coast of Utopia

The eagerly awaited trilogy of plays by Tom Stoppard, "The Coast of Utopia".

They deal with intellectual ferment and idealised love amongst 19th Century Russians in exile.

(Edited highlights of the panel's review)

Tom Stoppard says that you can see each of these plays in isolation, but is the experience of seeing the three together what's important? The idea of event theatre?

It is an event, but it's an event partly because it embodies a very powerful idea. This is a play, not a tract or a treatie, but the idea that it embodies is that Utopia is not just unrealisable but it's unimaginable.

There can be no world in which everything we want is all possible and the attempt to realise Utopia just brings about tears and farce. That's the basic idea, which I think he transmits through maybe what could be seen as fairly obvious device, but I think it works tremendously well in this event.

The device is by constantly juxtaposing the speeches and the discourse which these romantic Russian revolutionaries engage in with the tangle of their lives and with something even more important, which he shows through his imaginative use of children, which is that each stage of the life of a person is valuable for what it is, not what it later becomes.

We are not children in order to grow up. We don't grow up in order to grow old. We don't stay alive in order to die. All these aspects are what they are and should be enjoyed for what they are. That's the basic idea which the whole trilogy embodies. That's why the last of the three has a slightly elderly feel. It's about people looking back at these phases of their lives.

Germaine, he famously works for years studying his subject, four years at least for this one, and he involves the writings of the characters themselves. Did he become mired in the material, do you think, or did he successfully create it as theatre?

Or did he accomplish neither of the above? Well now, it depends where you are coming from. If you actually read Bakunin, you are going to be very disappointed because he is nowhere treated as a thinker, which to the world's population of anarchists is a big disappointment.

But maybe that's just as well, because one of the things about the way Stoppard deals with questions of ideology and abstract thought is to lead you, as it were, up the garden, as he so charmingly says in one of the plays, and then make a flip joke and leave you.

He is basically not interested. One of the things that this whole trilogy wants to tell you is you needn't trouble your pretty head about the great absolutes because they don't mean anything. This is not the case.

Why would he spend so much time researching it, trying to bring veracity to the play?

Because he needs to believe that they don't mean anything. My theory is that Stoppard is afraid of Bakunin. We start off with Bakunin at 19 and then he is a figure that just appears. The fact that he has been in this Peter and Paul fortress doesn't appear to mean anything to anybody. He is treated as if he was the same as a fantasy revolutionary.

But that's what he was. He was a revolutionary fantasy. He was a buffoonish figure. In fact, I don't like this portrait of Bakunin as an endearing buffoon. If he had been less disorganised and less shambolic he would have been just as tyrannical as Marx who he constantly attacked.

Now just a minute. We could start a big argument here and bore everybody to death. Bakunin keeps thinking of ways to organise new society, but it's about destroying the old society and the creative act of destruction.

I would have thought Stoppard understood that. He should understand deconstruction. He was the first post-modernist, but he has forgotten what he did.

have to bring the baggage and knowledge of history to this? Tom Stoppard himself says you don't need to know anything before you come and see these plays.

You had better not know anything. However, there is a detailed programme. Indeed, when I heard the audience going out, they were saying, "I must go and read a bit about this."

The whole three plays are about humanity within history. The whole point is about the struggle with figures, characters, real people, who at some moment feel themselves to be world historic figures.

It's actually about how really history isn't made up with great swathes and movements. It's made up of small moments. That's why, for me, the best play isn't the first one, which has Bakunin raving across the stage ad nauseam.

The best of the three plays is the second one, when you have 1848, the Paris revolution. Then you have this immense set of tragedies which hit Herzen in the second half of the play.

The idea of family. It was a Godsend that Herzen had such a colourful private life in a way, wasn't it?

For anyone involved in politics; politics is made up of personal issues, moments, feelings. All of these things. With the second play, Shipwreck, you get the juxtaposition of those things. It actually turns from a set of plays which could be a series of polemics into something that's poetic and quite tragic.

I agree. It could be criticised for being didactic. It's not. It's against didacticism. The second one suggests that these kind of didactic absolutes are deceptive and conceal the reality of people's lives and politics.

The ethereal friendship between the women?

That's another example.

It's interesting the way women are dealt with in this play, not really given their true place, I have to say.

It depends what you think their true place is.

It's not simply running on and off the stage with babies in prams.

But they are also the depth charge that blows Herzen out of the water. They do things like die when they're not meant to, but live and be happy. They are meant to be happy with the wrong husband and accept, and so on and so forth.

I am not concerned about it at that level. If what Stoppard was doing was no more than what Starkey does or Simon Schama does, then that wouldn't be the point. It would be a laborious way of telling a historic story and, in a way, emptying of substance when you tell it. These are the most interesting years in Russian history.

One thing we shouldn't forget about this series is that Stoppard was captivated not by an idea but by Herzen. Herzen is a captivating person and played brilliantly with restrained intensity.

See also:

05 Apr 02 | Panel
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