REVIEW: Arcadia, Theatre Royal Brighton Then On Tour ✭✭✭

English Touring Theatre present Tom Stoppard'sArcadia on tour.

Dakota Blue Richards and Wilf Scolding in Arcadia. Photo: Mark Douet

Arcadia
Theatre Royal Brighton then on tour
7 February 2015
3 Stars

In the programme for her production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, director Blanche McIntyre says: “The ideas are dazzling and Arcadia trusts the audience to understand them; it invites the audience to join in the conversation. But it also has very human touches. It is moving, even heart-breaking at times but it is also hugely funny. It's the only play I know that reaches all four points of the compass, you might say. It is intellectually daring and it has the courage to communicate complex arguments to an audience. It also has humanity and it has wit and it's very rare to find a play with all these qualities…I loved Arcadia so much that I couldn't bear to see what another director might have done to it. Imagine if you'd seen it done badly…

Imagine.

Now commencing a UK tour, McIntyre's production of Arcadia has just finished its opening week at the Theatre Royal Brighton.

Stoppard's play bursts with ideas: the notion of memory; the concept of who writes history and how; clashes between science and art; chance and the role it plays on life; chaos theory; the rigours or otherwise of academia; the second law of thermodynamics; Classicism and Romanticism; the consequences and complications of carnal embrace; the life of a tortoise; gardens, a hermit and an exotic dahlia.

All of these ideas play out in one great room of Sidley Park, the stately home of the Croom/Coverley family, but in different times. In 1809, a 13 year old Thomasina is being tutored by a lusty Septimus Hodge, whose friend, Lord Byron, is staying for the weekend. In the present day, two academics are trying to work out what happened on that long ago weekend and how, and if, Byron was involved.

It's a symphony of wit and wisdom wrapped up in a puzzle, a puzzle which is shattered and then, like a fiendishly difficult jigsaw puzzle, is put back together piece by piece. There are no unanswered questions at the end, no conundrums to ponder about the narrative. Stoppard ensures that everything works and that the humour and humanity of the piece is the lasting impression.

Theoretical concepts, notably Chaos theory, are given life in the work. The mere presence of Septimus Hodge at Sidley House creates a series of chain reactions which reverberate into the future. Thomasina, pupil to Septimus, on a whim, paints a hermit onto the sketch for the new garden her mother is contemplating installing; the image of that hermit will inspire the work of a modern day academic, Hannah. Lady Croom gives a book belonging to Septimus to Lord Byron to read, thereby starting a chain of events that will end up with modern day Sussex Don, Bernard Nightingale, publishing a learned paper prematurely. Actions in the past shape the future; chance events such as the discovery of secret carnal embraces, the loan of a book, the painting of a hermit, a monkey's bite, a blazing fire, can result in different possible futures. Chaos theory.

Stoppard also takes another tack: how actions in the future seek to reshape the past, if not actually, theoretically. So while the scientist characters in the play are sure that the jam having been stirred into the porridge, it can't be unstirred, or the tea having cooled, it can't, naturally anyway, reheat, the academics, by taking facts they know and theorising about their links and connectivity come to conclusions which, effectively, unstir the porridge. Gut instincts or flashes of genius – the demarcation comes with the proof, whether that be a series of mathematical equations or an entry in a Game book.

A question about carnal embrace commences the action and an answer to another question on the same topic in the final scene ends it, sealing the fate of one character and, in so doing, altering the course of human understanding. Sex is a constant, chaotic character in this play – a universe altering element that Newton and his successors gave but scarce attention. Heat of a different kind; one that can renew naturally or arise where previously there had been coolness.

It is all fascinating and engaging material which, in other hands, might be as dry as dust, but Stoppard's sparkling dialogue and deft, idiosyncratic characters enliven the whole affair. The elements fuse into theatrical alchemy – about as close to pure joy as it comes in modern writing.

I have often mused whether or not Arcadia is actor or director proof. Some plays are. Some plays are so well structured and well written, so intrinsically sound, that even in the hands of dullards or fools they still manage an astonishing degree of entertainment. Blanche McIntyre's production pretty much proves that theory.

This is not to say that McIntyre has directed it badly, that is not the case. But it is hopelessly miscast in a number of ways, and that miscasting serves to stop the production reaching the dazzling, glittering heights the play can achieve. Which is a great shame. Still, there is a lot that works really well and, in those sections, you can see what McIntyre might have achieved if there was a uniformly apt cast.

I especially liked the way McIntyre seamlessly fused the two time streams, showing them overlap and intertwine, leaving characters from one era linger slightly as the period changed, emphasising how one reality was inextricably linked to the other. The possibilities of past and present, ephemeral but resonant.

The gorgeous waltzing sequence at the end of the play is beautifully done and the juxtaposing of Thomasina and Septimus' final waltz to the strains of modern day music is inspired. But some of the stage pictures are clumsy and interfere with the play's unfolding: Bernard's briefcase on the centre table blocks the view of drawings of Lady Croom's garden renovations for a third of the audience, making that narrative thread that more difficult to comprehend.

Jonathan Fensom's set is good, fitting both time periods well. There is no backdrop used here, so beyond the great room where the action takes place there is no garden, just the grey/black wall of the stage. At first, this struck me as bizarre, but, actually, it is quite inspired: one is constantly reminded that life and art (the play) occurs in a universe with rules, a scientific world. You imagine the garden just as Thomasina imagines her theories, and Hannah and Bernard imagine the unfolding of deeds in the past. Everything has structure.

Johanna Town's lighting is excellent and the time shifts are beautifully handled. Fensom's costumes are very good for the Nineteenth Century characters but not so effective, curiously, for the modern day characters.

Stoppard offers six central characters each of which, in the hands of gifted performers, offers the chance for virtuoso and bravura performances: Septimus, Lady Croom, Valentine, Hannah, Bernard and Thomasina. Each of the other characters are perfectly formed; wonderful chances for actors to shine. But here, the casting puts paid to quite a lot of the possibilities.

Quite a lot, but by no means all.

Wilf Scolding is terrific as Septimus. Tall, handsome and blessed with a rich, resonant voice, Scolding is perfect as the Byronesque tutor. Wry, witty, and wanton, Scolding excels at the verbal dexterity the role requires and also brings a true sense of the Nineteenth Century to all he does. His bearing and attitude is precisely right, and his genuine affection for both Thomasina and Lady Croom is cleverly conveyed. It's a real pleasure to hear him speak Stoppard's words and give them full value.

Equally pitch-perfect is Kirsty Besterman's easy-to-enrage Lady Croom, a woman with large appetites, a sense of entitlement etched into every molecule and a marvellous ability to toss aphorisms and watch them strike home. She flounces, flirts and fixes stares with glee and magnificent aplomb. She, too, has a wonderful voice and knows how to use it. Besterman's performance is splendid in every way; it is a full value, full throttle Lady Croom.

Valentine, the modern day student scientist, is a difficult, but critical, role. He represents the detachment of Science in the face of the angst and anguish of Literature and History and Art. He solves problems and provides clues to the greater mysteries, but seldom does the role gel coherently. Ed MacArthur, however, is excellent in every way, and his Valentine is the best I have ever seen. He brings an aloof detachment to the part, while clearly demonstrating the human feelings which underpin the character. Superb.

The role of Hannah Jarvis is a gift for any actress and Flora Montgomery unwraps it and makes it memorable. Tough but compassionate, fiercely intelligent but not caught up in her own importance, acerbic and waspish when needed, passionate and caring, Montgomery presents the complexities of Hannah very well. She perfectly conveys the sense of the academic rush, the thirst for knowledge, but she insists on the truth to underpin any discoveries. Her sense of connection with humanity is palpable.

Charlie Manton is delightful as Gus, the silent, younger sibling to Valentine. He is watchful and tentative throughout, and his final scene with Hannah is perfectly judged. So, too, is his scene as Augustus, Thomasina's brother. Tom Greaves is good as the tetchy Captain Brice and David Mara sublimely officious and judgmental as the gossipy Jellaby.

As the third member of the modern day Croom family (the Coverleys), Chloe, Ria Zmitrowicz is sprightly and exuberant. She has good stage sense and more than once it was difficult to understand why she was not playing Thomasina rather than Dakota Blue Richards, who may or may not be good on film or television, but who has few of the skills necessary to make a fascinating part like Thomasina glisten on stage. Frequently inaudible, Richards has none of the vocal ability necessary here; in particular, there was no sense of the child genius from the Nineteenth century in her phrasing or delivery. Especially against Scolding and Besterman, Richards seems weak and modern, not prodigiously intelligent, precocious and wistful. She is wildly miscast.

So too is Robert Cavanah, whose irritating Bernard misses most of the points Stoppard makes with his character. Dull and charmless, Cavanah is not showy enough, not charming enough and not self-obsessed enough to be the character the play needs: the villain, or at least the bad guy, whose failure brings happiness. Where there should be mellifluous tones, self-grandeur and the rush that knowledge can bring, Cavanah's Bernard is bland and grating. More pigeon than peacock.

Because Stoppard envisaged Hannah and Bernard as a double-act, Cavanah's lack-lustre turn adversely affects Montgomery's performance. It is the same with Thomasina and Septimus; Richards' inadequacies affect Scolding's ability to be the best Septimus he can. It is a testament to both Scolding and Montgomery that they achieved so much with their characters given the lack of support.

Nakay Kpaka throws away the delicious role of Ezra Chater, a character central to the machinations in the past over which the modern day academics are fussing and tussling. Larrington Walker makes no good impression as Noakes; another needless loss to the texture of the play.

Arcadia is a great play, a masterpiece of the modern theatre. McIntyre produces a workmanlike production, but poor casting decisions affect the overall experience, rendering what should be sensational merely sufficient. But sufficient Stoppard is still more than worthwhile. If you have never seen this play, see this production and make up your own mind.

As Hannah says: “It's wanting to know that makes us matter.”

ARCADIA 2015 TOUR DATES

9 – 14 February 2015
Theatre Royal Bath
Saw Close, Bath BA1 1ET
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16 – 21 February 2015
Churchill Theatre
High Street, Bromley BR1 1HA
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23 – 28 February 2015
New Victoria Theatre
Peacocks Centre, Woking, Surrey GU21 6GQ
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2 – 7 March 2015
Aylesbury Waterside Theatre
Exchange Street, Aylesbury, Bucks HP20 1UG
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9 – 14 March 2015
Hall for Cornwall
Back Quay, Truro, Cornwall TR1 2LL
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23 – 28 March 2015
New Alexandra Theatre
Station Street, Birmingham B5 4DS
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30 March – 4 April 2015
Cambridge Arts Theatre
6 St Edward’s Passage, Cambridge CB2 3PJ
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6 – 11 April 2015
Festival Theatre
Grange Road, Malvern, Worcs WR143HB
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13 – 18 April 2015
Oxford Playhouse
11-12 Beaumont Street, Oxford OX1 2LW
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  • Nigel Burgess

    Just seen a performance of this at Oxford Playhouse.It hasn’t improved unfortunately. “Imagine if you’d seen it done badly” Indeed, Indeed.