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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Arcadia
Duke of York's Theatre 2009

Some prefer The Real Thing, and there will always be affection for R And G Are Dead, but to my mind Arcadia is Tom Stoppard's finest play. And this thoroughly entertaining new production displays almost all its virtues and charm, in some cases more successfully than the original National Theatre production of 1993.

Stoppard is known for his wit and verbal inventiveness, but his real genius lies in turning the most unlikely and arcane topics into living dramatic metaphors, making us see and feel things in fresh ways (and, incidentally, teaching us a lot about subjects we may have thought beyond our abilities).

In this case he yokes together landscape gardening, algebra, post-Newtonian physics, Romantic poetry, historical research and sex - and makes them bounce off each other in ways that are not only thought-provoking but thoroughly delightful.

The play is set in a country estate in two time frames, 1809 and the present. Back then, a precociously brilliant teenager is challenging her tutor, when he is not distracted by sexual escapades with various other women in the house, while the grounds of the estate are being transformed from classical 18th-century gardens to the new style of faux wildness, complete with newly-built ruins and hermitage.

In the present, two literary historians are searching for evidence to support their theories about the period, one trying to turn the resident hermit into a Romantic symbol, the other convinced that Lord Byron fought a duel here.

One of the jokes Stoppard lets us in on by showing both past and present is that the historians get everything wrong. But he also shows us that in both periods a debate between rationality and romance was going on, and that attempts to make sense of the universe are repeatedly confounded by the refusal of reality to follow the neat patterns either science or sentiment tries to impose on it.

Real live people are likely to wander off their assumed demographic patterns when distracted by sex, and real physical objects don't always act as Newton or even Einstein said they should. With full awareness of the pun, Stoppard warns that no science or academic system can fully account for 'the action of bodies in heat.'

And all this is fun. In the past, the student's enchanting mix of innocence and instinctive brilliance - Stoppard has her anticipating modern mathematics and physics by more than a hundred years - is as delightful as the revelations about the real meanings of the bits of evidence the modern researchers uncover and misinterpret. In the present, their comical errors do not negate our appreciation of their dedication and enthusiasm, one methodical but romantic, the other imaginative but undisciplined.

Stoppard never takes sides in any of the open or implied debates - the play is a celebration of the complexity and messiness of life. Also there in the present is a young scientist, and Stoppard gives him the most eloquent and thrilling speech in the play, as he describes the excitement of living in a time when all assumptions about how the universe runs are being rejected and there is nothing to do but learn. But then the only moment to match this one directly contradicts it as one of the historians argues with contagious enthusiasm that poetry and human experiences are the only reality.

(Stoppard even plays with our expectations and assumptions as theatregoers, setting up two character pairings that all our experience tells us will end up as romances, and then showing life once again refusing to behave neatly.)

Acting honours go to Samantha Bond and especially Neil Pearson as the feuding academics in the present, Ed Stoppard (son of...) as the young scientist, and Dan Stevens as the amorous 19th-century tutor. The one weak link in the whole evening is Jessie Cave, whose lumpen presence and performance completely miss the charm of the adolescent prodigy.

Except for that error in casting, director David Leveaux deserves praise for finding and bringing out all the intellectual fascination and sheer fun of the play.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Arcadia - Duke of York's 2009