by Lynn on November 14, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Royal Alexandra Theatre

Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Eda Holmes
Designed by Sue LePage
Lighting by Michelle Ramsay
Original music by Allen Cole
Starring: Michael Ball
Kate Besworth
Andrew Bunker
Diana Donnelly
Martin Happer
Patrick McManus
Kyle Orzech
Gray Powell
Ric Reid
Harveen Sandhu
Sanjay Talwar
Nicole Underhay

Arcadia is one of Tom Stoppard’s wittiest, most engaging plays and it’s been given a splendid production by director Eda Holmes and her wonderful cast.

The Story. It takes place in a beautiful country house in Sidley Park, England in both 1809 and the present, over three years. In 1809 precocious 13 year old Thomasina Coverly and her tutor Septimus Hodge are exploring chaos theory, Greek, Latin, political thought, and Fermat’s enigmatic theory in mathematics. Septimus tells Thomasina to try and solve the enigma, which she begins with a pencil and her notebook.

She’s very inquisitive and wants to know what carnal embrace is because she heard someone say that apparently Septimus was seen in carnal embrace in the gazebo, with the wife of one of the guests at the house. The jealous husband is a minor poet but a man of honour and challenges Septimus to a duel. There is lots of other activity—the garden is being re-invented by an avant guard gardener who is going from order to seeming chaos. He is also creating a hermitage. In a moment of impishness, Thomasina draws a hermit on the plans for the garden that will confound people 150 years in the future—our present. People will want to know who that hermit was.

As for the present, a literary scholar named Hannah Jarvis has come to Sidley Park to do a history of the garden. She also wants to try and find out the identity of the hermit she’s seen in a drawing of the plans of the garden. We know this is a joke. Hannah does not. Unbeknownst to her is that Bernard Nightingale, a pompous scholar, and a kind of rival to her, also finds his way to the manor house. He is investigating a mystery involving Lord Byron and whether or not he was in a duel when he visited Sidley Park all that time ago. Again, we know the answer. Nightingale does not. Nightingale once wrote a scathing review of Hannah’s book and when she realizes who he is she is blazing. He just wants to laud it over her and perhaps get her into bed.

There is also Valentine Coverly a scientist and distant relative of Thomasina all those years before. He has taken her little notebook, and her exploration of Fermat’s Enigma and put its calculations through his computer. He realizes that Thomasina has brilliantly come close to proving the theory of Thermodynamics way before Newton did. She has taken the definition of ‘carnal embrace’ with its attendant ‘heat’ and applied it to her theory of heat rising etc., although Newton was probably not thinking of sexual heat when he was thinking of his theory.

The Production. Arcadia is being given a bracing, scintillating production, thanks to director Eda Holmes and her stellar cast. The set by Sue LePage is simple but elegant. Director Eda Holmes has staged the cast as if it’s a dance and they are being choreographed. The pace is tempered and graceful and the body language is appropriate for the time.—formal for the 1800 sections, and freer-looser limbed in the present day.

As Thomasina, Kate Besworth, with her cascading blonde curls, is precocious, innocent in a charming way, plucky and watchful. Gray Powell as her tutor Septimus Hodge, is charming, quick witted, attentive and a man who acts with grace when under pressure. Diana Donnelly captures Hannah Jarvis’s common sense, her rigorous intellect and scholarship and her innate decency. And as Bernard Nightingale, the man we love to loath, Patrick McManus just bubbles with arrogance. His head bobbles as he makes a point and swivels his hips to make another suggestive point. Even in defeat he is flamboyant. Terrific performances all and that goes for the rest of the cast.

Comment. This production of Arcadia is a transfer of the wonderful production that played at the Shaw Festival two years ago. In his program note, Professor Hersh Zeifman notes that Tom Stoppard is exploring the deference between the Classical temperament with the Romantic. Zeifman equates that with the head vs the heart; the methodical vs. the passionate. In this case, Hannah is the typical example of classical thinking—cool, methodical, weighs all the evidence. And Bernard Nightingale is the Romantic thinker who flits from here to there not being as scrupulous as Hannah in his scholarship, but is passionate and excited about it.

In Arcadia Tom Stoppard is also exploring the history of gardens, chaos theory; thermodynamics; scholarly research, and the disruptive influence of sex. With all these theories and ideas whizzing through the air, the audience might think they need a PHD in philosophy and science to get this play. Nothing could be further from the truth. They just have to listen and enjoy.

We all know precocious kids like Thomasina. Their brains are amazing. It doesn’t mean we have to understand every brilliant idea they come up with. But we do have to believe they can come up with that idea.

We all know a pompous ass like Bernard Nightingale—know it alls, who show off with their intellect and accomplishment, who jump to conclusions and fall flat on their ass-umptions. The audience is in on every clue and all the information that might be missing to some characters. It’s hilarious how some characters go decidedly in the wrong direction in pursuit of the clue and the missing information. All we need to do is believe in those characters and their place in their world.

David Mirvish presents the Shaw Festival production:

Opened: Nov. 9, 2014
Closes: Dec. 14, 2014
Cast: 12; 8 men, 4 women.
Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.

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