‘Arcadia’ by Tom Stoppard is billed as a comedy, and there are certainly some very funny lines, but it’s also a drama that’s about as serious as it gets. It helps to have a reasonable understanding of the implications of chaos theory and the second law of thermodynamics, not to mention garden design history, the life of Byron and mathematical iteration. I’m not a specialist in any of those, so it’s a challenging play that makes you think a lot.
The structure of the play is well worked, going back and forth between scenes in the early nineteenth century and the late twentieth century, interweaving the past and the present in a way that reminded me strongly of ‘Possession’ by A.S. Byatt, one of my favourite books. Since ‘Possession’ appeared in 1990 and this play in 1993, it’s hard to believe that Stoppard wasn’t influenced by the novel. Like Byatt he throws in a fair bit of satire on modern academics, but he has larger scientific themes as well. Thomasina, a girl in the 19th century, presumed to be talking before the second law of thermodynamics had been formulated, illustrates the principle by discussing how jam can be stirred into a rice pudding, but can’t then be unstirred. Meanwhile the 20th century academics, trying to recreate what happened in the past, seem engaged in trying (unsuccessfully) to put the rice pudding back together.
We saw the play in Bath in a production by the English Touring Theatre. It worked well enough, and gave us a very stimulating night in the theatre, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by some of the acting and particularly the delivery of some of the lines. When you’ve got lines to deliver that can be difficult to understand, the director and the actors need to help the audience by varying the pace, the emphasis, the timing, the gestures, to bring out as much meaning as possible. This is what the RSC is often superb at doing. They take words written 400 years ago and bring out the meaning, or often bring out new meaning, by the way they deliver the lines, so that it sounds much more up to date. Here we had up to date words, that were at times made to sound as if they were written 400 years ago, so little did the delivery aid understanding.
Having said that, there were some good performances, and I thought one of the best came from Ed MacArthur, playing Valentine Coverley in his professional stage debut. His conversations with Flora Montgomery as Hannah Jarvis, worked well, but I was less convinced by Wilf Scolding’s portrayal of Septimus Hodge. We had to imagine he was not only a tutor coping with the tricky questions of a precocious student, but also a friend of Byron’s and a habitual seducer as well, which for me required too much suspension of disbelief. He threw his lines off too glibly as though he was Oscar Wilde delivering aphorisms, and it was difficult to take his relationship with Ezra Chater at all seriously. I suppose we’re not meant to do so, if Chater is just a comic character, but that requires a tricky balance between the serious and the comic to pull off, and for me it just didn’t work.