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Arcadia

Published June 5, 2009

There really is a little bit of everything in Arcadia; comedy, drama, intellectual debate, heartbreaking emotions, fantasy, reality and mystery. So much, in fact, that it might appear a random mess were it not so perfectly ordered.

Chaos theory versus Determinism is just one of the areas explored in the piece revived for the first time since its Laurence Olivier Award-winning 1993 premiere at the National Theatre. Throw in Romanticism, pivotal moments in history, Byron’s biography and landscape gardening, and you might be somewhere near Arcadia’s breadth.

Put that way, it sounds as dry and headache-inducing as a bare-headed summer in the Sahara, but this is Stoppard at his finest, making oft-inaccessible ideas as easy as swirling jam in porridge. There is such passion in his characters that we can’t help but care as much as they do.

Neil Pearson’s intellectual Bernard Nightingale, searching for the truth about Byron’s emigration, is a bundle of energy, bounding across the stage with the excitement of his discoveries. Ed Stoppard’s mathematician Valentine by contrast, is so enthralled and over-awed by his own ground-breaking predicament that he can barely talk to explain it. But explain it he does… and it starts to make sense.

But to focus on the intellectual would be to deny the real heart and plot of Arcadia, which are as enthralling as any equation which could predict the future. Arcadia is, at its centre, a mystery played out over two centuries. In 1809, Sidley Park plays home to a child mathematical genius, her tutor, family and assorted visitors. Two hundred years later and the estate, still in the hands of the Coverly family, hosts a group of intellectuals determined to understand the house’s intriguing past.

There is such passion among Stoppard’s characters that it is hard not to fall in love with them all. Dan Stevens’s tutor Septimus Hodge is dry and witty in a typically English, Hugh Grant-ian fashion, while Jessie Cave as his lone pupil stays just on the right side of precocious. Nancy Carroll’s Lady Croom is delightfully crisp and assertive, while Samantha Bond’s Hannah Jarvis is vulnerable and tigerish, confident and heartfelt.

Director David Leveaux pitches the pace of the production perfectly, giving us enough time to soak up the theories, but not so long that any emotional punch drains away. Some might say that if everything in the world could be explained by mathematics, he has found the perfect equation for presenting Arcadia.

MA

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