Samantha Bond, Nancy Carroll, Jessie Cave, Neil Pearson, Dan Stevens, Ed Stoppard, Trevor Cooper, Sam Cox, Lucy Griffiths, Tom Hodgkins, Hugh Mitchell, George Potts
Arguably Tom Stoppard’s most richly fulfilling work, Arcadia was first staged at the National Theatre in 1993. In its first major revival in London, David Leveaux’s well-rounded production brings out not just the play’s ambitious metaphysical scope and its dazzling wit, but also a real feeling of pathos.
Covering everything from Newtonian physics and chaos theory to landscape gardening and Romantic literature, Stoppard makes big ideas accessible and entertaining without dumbing them down.
While using sophisticated forms of sex farce and detective story, there is also a sense of the mysterious beauty of life which leads to an unexpectedly tragic ending.
Set in the fictitious country house Sidley Park in Derbyshire, nicely evoked in Hildegard Bechtler’s elegantly airy design, the action moves between Regency England and the present-day, with the parallels eventually converging as the characters from both periods appear on stage simultaneously. In the former, Septimus Hodge, tutor to the aristocratic family’s precocious daughter Thomasina Coverly (who believes she has found the solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem), is in love with her mother Lady Croom but finds relief from his sexual frustration with the lascivious wife of the third-rate poet Ezra Chater.
Two hundred years later arrogant media academic Bernard Nightingale is looking for proof that Hodge’s friend Lord Byron killed Chater in a duel, while popular feminist historian Hannah Jarvis is trying to find out who was the seemingly mad inhabitant of the garden’s hermitage. As their research paths overlap and conflict, Valentine Coverly is developing the mathematical theories of his antecedent Thomasina, with all three making surprising intellectual and personal discoveries.
Stoppard brilliantly links all these disparate elements, so that nothing seems extraneous and the overall result is a satisfyingly cohesive whole. The scenes themselves, alternating from one era to the other, are cleverly connected by details such as the family’s superannuated tortoise or offstage piano music, while there are broader thematic connections too, including dichotomies of rationalism versus imagination, and predetermination versus the unpredictable. And there is something very moving about the way the forward-looking ideas of the earlier era are matched by the historical reconstruction of the modern characters to form an overarching humanity.
The cast is excellent. Dan Stevens’s scholarly sardonic Hodge is a charmingly flawed figure, Nancy Carroll plays Lady Croom with a sexy hauteur, Jessie Cave is the girlish bluestocking Thomasina and George Potts the bumptiously vain Chater. Neil Pearson makes the most of Nightingale’s comically in-your-face offensiveness, Samantha Bond suggests a vulnerability behind Jarvis’s cynical defensiveness and the playwright’s son Ed Stoppard gives Valentine a doubtful melancholy about empirical certainties, while relishing the challenge: ‘It makes me so happy. To be at the beginning again knowing almost nothing’ thus neatly summing up the play’s astonishing sense of intellectual excitement.