Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia first played at the National Theatre in 1993, and this is the first revival of it since then. It takes place in a country house in England, but in two different time periods: the early 1800s and modern-day 1989. It is an extremely difficult play to try and summarise but I will try and give it a shot.
In 1809, a precocious teenager, Thomasina, is studying with her tutor, Septimus Hodge who is a colleague of the poet Lord Byron, and it is apparent that her knowledge is vastly superior to his, especially in the field of mathematics where her musings show her to be well ahead of her time. In 1989, a writer is looking into the life of a hermit who apparently lived in the grounds of the stately home, when a visiting academic stops by looking for help with his investigations into a period of Byron’s life about which little is known. Painstakingly, and with the help of the current residents of the house, including Valentine Coverley who is a student of advanced mathematical biology, pieces of evidence are recovered and we slowly begin to find out what really happened nearly 200 years ago.
At every opportunity though, Stoppard introduces intellectual discussions about all sorts of matters: classicism versus romanticism; the nature of time; landscape gardening; and possibly most important of all, chaos versus order. Whilst this may seem a little heavy-going, it is treated with such a deftness of touch that it never overwhelms the play, rather an air of intellectualism hangs over the production and the viewer can delve as deeply as they wish into the minutiae of the issues. The dynamism with which we move from one era to the other, carrying the themes with us, also keeps the action lively and I for one, was not bored at any point, despite quite a lengthy running time.
The whole ensemble cast is simply excellent, it hardly seems fair to single out anyone for praise, but there are some performances which deserve special mention. In the modern day era, Samantha Bond and Neil Pearson have great chemistry as the squabbling academics, Bond in particular has such elegant poise and as her would-be suitor Valentine, Ed Stoppard has a fantastic intense brooding quality, all the more impressive given the extremely dense text he has to deliver about subjects such as chaos theory and entropy or the second law of thermodynamics.
In the earlier period, Nancy Carroll’s Lady Croom is haughtily highly amusing and Jessie Cave makes an assured West End stage debut a the young Thomasina, which should lay to rest any concerns that Harry Potter fans may have (she plays Lavender Brown in the upcoming Half-Blood Prince). But for me, Dan Stevens as the tutor Septimus Hodge just inches it as the stand-out performance in the show, and not only because he looks stunning in a pair of britches! His relationship with his pupil Thomasina is wonderfully played, there’s a genuine feel of the emotional pull between the two which is increasingly sexual but never sleazy. His interactions with the other characters are also strong: witty with his rivals, flirty with Lady Croom, Stevens acquits himself with real aplomb and I feel he should be recognise for this performance come awards season.
The set is quite bare, with just a long table on it, and does not change when we flit from one era to the other, but this only serves to strengthen the nature of the play. The table slowly collects artefacts from each period, kind of representing the way in which the differences between the two strands are beginning to blur and the connections become stronger. The lighting and music also subtly suggest this and all of these combine to make the piece all the more moving.
So despite knowing nothing about it beforehand, Arcadia proved itself to be quite the rarity for me: a highly intelligent play that makes you think but also moves you emotionally. I may still not be entirely sure what it was all about, or indeed be able to say what kind of play it is, but in covering so many subjects with such skill, and with performances as strong as these, it is simply a pure pleasure to watch.