Andrew Hilton, Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s artistic director, chose well in pairing Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia with Shakespeare’s As You Like It. It appears, though, that the cast are more joyful performing the Stoppard than they were traipsing around the Forest of Arden. Strange, because this is a play about the tendency of everything in the universe to fade, eventually, to nothingness (but, we are reminded, with a note of optimism, that our universe will be recycled to make a new one!). Despite the apparent sobriety of the subject matter, however, this production is frequently funny, often profound and constantly well-executed.
The pared-back stage space is perfect for the single setting of the schoolroom in Sidley Park, the country house that forms the locus of the play. Arcadia alternates between two timelines: one set in the present day, and one in 1809, in which we get to know the bright young Thomasina Coverley, a genius who has started dismantling Newtonian laws by her fourteenth birthday, played with unceasing sprightliness by the wonderful Hannah Lee. Thomasina is being tutored by the schoolfriend of Lord Byron, serial shagger and tortoise-owner Septimus Hodge (Piers Wehner) and the play opens with a farcical exchange between the two of them that gets the play off to a spirited start: ‘What,’ Thomasina asks, ‘is carnal embrace?’
The lightness of the farce is soon disrupted by the appearance of several characters in modern dress, who are introduced as the fiercely sharp author Hannah Jarvis (played with quiet and brilliant intensity by Polly Frame), a slightly lackadaisical PhD student named Valentine, chronically shy teenager Gus, and Bernard Nightingale, an academic determined to prove that Lord Byron shot a poet, Ezra Chater, in Sidley Park. The tone changes and the scenes become progressively intellectual as the play proceeds. It might be clever but the dialogue is constantly engaging and accessible, even if you can’t dose off for a second without missing a literary pun (Valentine Coverley, the PhD student, is ‘Brideshead Regurgitated’, for example). If farce is your bag, then you might find this shift into academic discussion disappointing, but as the play develops, so too does the satisfaction the audience can derive from really listening and thinking.
What is especially sharp about the play is the way in which the dual chronologies feed into each other and interlace with increasing rapidity and relevance. It is not just that similar human impulses run through both timelines, but that the echoes of the past illuminate the actions of the historian and the academic in the present: the same words are used by different characters in different contexts to comically alienating effect, Gus keeps circling around the stage like an errant atom unsure of its trajectory, and clues from the past are revealed to the audience, before being interpreted within a romanticised narrative by the investigators in the present.
The actors are finely attuned to each other, and manage to sustain the two separate timelines on stage in synchronous harmony. The sparks between Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightingale, played with credible glasses-on-head-wearing enthusiasm by Matthew Thomas, keep the atmosphere charged, even when they are discussing dusty catalogues. These intellectual discussions are enlivened with comic exchanges, some of the best between Piers Wehner as Septimus Hodge and his adversary (and sometime friend) Ezra Chater, played by Vicenzo Pellegrino. And Tom England is hysterical as the bashful, iPod wearing Gus. The blend of nineteenth-century farce and modern-day academia isn’t always wholly consistent, but knowing Stoppard, this is probably an analogy for the fact that you can only stir jam into rice pudding, not out of it…
Worthy of particular note is Hannah Lee’s performance as the precocious Thomasina; she really makes us care about the science she is espousing and demonstrates both the profundity and delight of scientific discovery with her sparky sincerity. We are all infected by her enthusiasm, not least because her unpatronising delivery of the complex scientific ideas makes the audience feel included (and a bit clever). This is a play that could easily end up being too brainy for its own good, but SATTF’s production pitches the intellectualism perfectly.
For those wishing to nourish their brains of a spring evening, and have a few laughs too, this warm and spirited production comes highly recommended.