by Tom Stoppard
New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham
In 2009 The Independent ran an article asking if 1993 Olivier Award winning play Arcadia was “the greatest play of our age?”. Johann Harri claiming that Arcadia had grown in “power and relevance” over the years. Indeed it is a magnificently crafted play, devilishly clever and witty; though you will need to keep your brain switched on to keep up with the science behind theories around which the plot revolves. A play concerning the relationship between past and present, order and disorder, certainty and uncertainty, including a detailed look at the chaos theory and the idea that “there is an underlying order to seemingly random events” make Arcadia a play with many layers indeed.
Set in the Derbyshire stately home, Sidley Park the action begins in 1809. A young science graduate, Septimus Hodge is tutoring the 13 year old daughter of the house, Thomasina Coverley. Stoppard instils the idea that time cannot move backwards, and every choice has its consequences: Tomasina could have lived on to become a mathematical genius. The action switches to the 1990s where in the same house the historian, Hannah Jarvis is researching the history of the house and its residents. Her work is interrupted by scholar Bernard Nightingale, who believes that Lord Byron committed murder on the premises and is determined to prove his claim for his next big lecture.
Blanche McIntyre’s direction is strong, she makes sure that the complicated mathematics and science are clearly explained and allows their relevance to the plot to shine through. The creamy stately home set, designed by Jonathan Fensom, has no need to change throughout the production but achieves that timeless feel allowing it to remain.
Flora Montgomery has a real lightness and nonchalantness to her as Hannah Jarvis, her naturalism is the ground upon which the modern scenes gel together. Robert Cavanah has bounce and enthusiasm as Nightingale – as any wannabe TV personality should have – and Ed MacArthur shows that despite only graduating last year he has bags of acting potential as Valentine Coverley. Dakota Blue Richards grasps the curiosity and intrigue of Thomasina, but her vocal energy often drops at the end of crucial lines. Wilf Scolding makes an excellent Septimus Hodge, his composure despite his increasing lust for his pupil is portrayed perfectly clearly and makes interesting watching. Also worth noting is Kirsty Besterman as Lady Croom, who despite her little stage time makes every moment count with her sharp delivery of lines and a great understanding of the brashness and wit of the character.
Although drawing decisive conclusions about the play seems impossible, you will undoubtedly leave the theatre feeling there was more to grasp, Arcadia is a sheer pleasure to experience – but make sure you come with your brain switched on.
Birmingham until 28th March. Touring: visiting Cambridge, Malvern and Oxford until 18th April