Arcadia, Tom Stoppard’s 1993 masterpiece, received a towering treatment by the Gate theatre a couple of months ago.
Director Patrick Mason, as well as re-uniting with two of his stars from last summer’s Abbey production of The Rivals, Marty Rea and Aoibheann O’Hara, found roles for Gate regular Barry McGovern and the go-to girl for Stoppardian teenagers (after last year’s The Real Thing) Beth Cooke in his elegant production. At nearly three hours long the play unfurls a romantic comedy in two acts (set in two different centuries) that is really about chaos theory, bad academic scholarship, and the conflict between imagination and rationality. Stoppardian theatre is always just such a theatre of ideas, and duller critics dislike it for that reason because he makes them feel rightly stupid, but Stoppard has an unrivalled capacity to integrate abstract concepts into highly personal conflicts and to present complex ideas accurately but as high comedy.
Stoppard introduces us to two sets of characters inhabiting the same English stately home in 1809-1812 and 1993. In the 19th century sequences arrogant tutor Septimus Hodge (the superb Rea) tries to deflect his mathematically gifted student Thomasina Coverly (Cooke) from seeking a definition of ‘a carnal embrace’ by introducing her to Fermat’s Last Theorem. He is less successful in distracting Donna Dent’s imperious Lady Croom and visiting poet Ezra Chater (a wonderfully blustering Stephen Swift) from the said carnal embrace between Septimus and Mrs Chater. In 1993 Bernard Nightingale (patron saint of dodgy academics) arrives to investigate a possible visit by Lord Byron to the house just before he abruptly left England. He spars with Valentine Coverly (a delightful Hugh O’Connor), who is using statistics to map animal populations on the estate, and Hannah Jarvis (a spirited Ingrid Craigie), who is researching the history of the house in the Regency period for a book on the decline of the Enlightenment into mere feeling. Over their strenuous objections Nightingale speculates his way to absolute certainty that Byron killed Chater in a duel and fled the country, contrary to what we actually see transpire between Chater, Septimus and his unseen visiting friend Byron…
Stoppard’s celebrated wit is given full rein in numerous sparkling lines such as Lady Coverly’s put down of her brother; “As her tutor it is your duty to keep her in ignorance”, “Do not indulge in paradox Edward, it puts you in danger of fortuitous wit”; and Septimus’ “I will not kill one of the few poets England has produced for the sake of a woman whose honour could not be adequately defended by a platoon of musketry deployed by rota”. Septimus’ ingenious praise eventually leads Chater to emotionally convince himself that in fact his wife loved him so much that she slept with Septimus for the sake of a good review by Septimus in the ‘Piccadily Review’. She didn’t .
Joe Vanek’s unfussy set was dominated by a large table on which characters from both eras deposited props so that past and present blurred as the play proceeded towards a surprisingly emotional ending as a careless line by Hannah revealed the tragic fate of characters joyously alive in the earlier period as both times collapsed into the same physical space. The ensemble was impeccable but special mention must go to Andrew Whipp as Bernard Nightingale who, especially in his repeated rejoinder of “I don’t know, I wasn’t bloody there” to all requests for more detail on his conclusions and his exit line of “Oh just publish!” on being told by Hannah that she knows something but can’t prove it, mined pure comedic gold.