“When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone on the empty shore”
With London audiences pondering The Hard Question and struggling to find the answer (we’re insufficiently classicly-educated apparently, though the journalist getting the name of the play wrong here is hardly a great start to counter that assertion) fans of Tom Stoppard can also catch his more celebrated play Arcadia in this English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Brighton co-production, directed by the ever-interesting Blanche McIntyre. I hesitate to call it a nationwide tour as it doesn’t appear to heading any further north than Birmingham but it is still a healthy enough trek for this pleasingly complex but affecting play.
As is customary with this playwright, it is a play full of weighty ideas – complex mathematics and chaos theory, entropy and existential truths, and takes place in the same country house drawing room in two time periods simultaneously, 1809 and the present day. Along the length of a fine dining table, the past rubs up against the present as the scientific rigour of the intellect goes head to head with the emotional poetry of the soul as Stoppard ultimately explores what it simply means to be human (and also what stirring rice pudding really represents). It is perhaps easy to get caught up in the density of the detail during the play but it would take the hardest of hearts not to be swept up the heart-breaking swing and sway of the final scene.
McIntyre deals with Stoppard’s intelligence with an understated delicacy which may come across as an unadorned simplicity at times, especially in the first half which does have its longueurs, but which equally allows audiences an uncomplicated route to the production’s heart. More detail in Jonathan Fensom’s design or more flashiness from Johanna Town’s lighting would detract from the matter at hand and even in the staging around the immutable table, there’s a gentle reminder that this is theatre for the ear as well as the eye, a play that demands to be listened to carefully as well as appreciated by the eye.
You could put pretty much any man in riding boots and a tailcoat and I’d pay attention (hello Tom Greaves) but Wilf Scolding’s Septimus Hodge really is possessed of an exceedingly charming manner that perfectly captures the spirit of this increasingly amorous tutor. Dakota Blue Richards as his pupil, the astonishingly intelligent Thomasina makes a beguiling stage debut which builds on the prescient brilliance of her Lyra from the film adaptation of The Golden Compass, and Kirsty Besterman is a terrific hoot as the lady (Bracknell) of the nineteenth century house. And Robert Cavanah and Flora Montgomery beautifully illuminate the modern day scenes with real dynamism.
And with its pairs of battered Converse and strains of Jeff Buckley, it is tempting to think that this is McIntyre showing a bit of herself, especially towards the end as past and present coalesce into one shimmeringly beautiful episode. There’s real elegance at work here but also skill, in the way that the intelligence of the drama always maintains its organic feel. If Arcadia winds its way near you over the coming weeks, you could do much worse than pay it a visit.