A big thank you to Chris Mead at PlayWriting Australia for recommending I read this one. Tom Stoppard’s Voyage is the first part of his The Coast of Utopia trilogy.
It’s a biographical suite of plays focusing on three Russian philosophers/writers/activists in the heady days before the Russian revolution. As a trilogy the plays cover the 1830s to the 1870s, with Voyage, the first one, focusing on 1833-1844 and Michael Bakunin, the man who would become one of Russia’s most famous anarchists.
When Stoppard introduces Bakunin to us, he is a dissolute aristocrat, meddling in his sisters’ lives, borrowing money from even the most impoverished of his friends, expecting to be provided for without ever having to lift a finger. The play focuses more on his sisters than it does on him and, in many ways, it reminded me of Chekhov and the longing of his Three Sisters. I say this because there’s a lot of talking about things, rather than seeing them happen on stage. I don’t mind this in a play about philosophy, politics and Russia – it seems quite fitting in many ways.
A gorgeous example of the philosophical debate is made when one of Bakunin’s friends, Belinsky, gets heated up and alienates Bakunin’s aristocratic family.
BELINSKY: […] as a nation we have no literature because what we have isn’t ours, it’s like a party where everyone has to come dressed up as somebody else – Byron, Voltaire, Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare and the rest […] Look at us! – A gigantic child with a tiny head stuffed full of idolatry for everything foreign … and a huge inert body abandoned to its own muck, a continent of vassalage and superstition – that’s your Russia, held together by police informers and fourteen ranks of uniformed flunkeys.
I was fascinated by Bakunin’s sisters, who were prepared to give up marriages, love and dreams at their impetuous brother’s behest. They clearly adored him and the love seemed to perhaps be a bit more than familial at times.
Voyage jumps about in time and place, with the action looping backwards and forwards in time to fill in the gaps of our knowledge and maintain tension. The non-linear story telling is perhaps the most dramatic element of this thoroughly researched and imaginatively recreated play.
I’ll leave the last word with Belinsky who appears to be the only real philosopher in this play.
BELINKSY: […] When philosophers start talking like architects, get out while you can, chaos is coming. When they start laying down rules for beauty, blood in the streets is from that moment inevitable.
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Cast: 16M, 10F