October 01, 1995

Binary Vision

Filed under: Archive,Interstate,Theatre


by Tom Stoppard
State Theatre in association with
The Sydney Theatre Company
Playhouse, September, 1995.

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Arcadia, like its setting, Sidley Park, is a major property. Probably Stoppard’s best work since the plays from the Seventies such as Jumpers and Travesties, it marks an impressive return to form. It is maddeningly over-written and plagued with tropes he should be able to resist by now. But it is also propelled by ideas and energies which, in full stride, are a delight.

On the face of it, Arcadia is a country house play, familiar setting for intrigue and the less than discreet charm of the aristocracy. Events run, as it were, on parallel lines. In 1809 at Sidley Park in Derbyshire, a garden is being picturesqued. In the same room, in 1993, two literary detectives attempt to assemble enough circumstantial evidence to posthumously verbal the poet Byron on a murder charge. And then, of course, there is the matter of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and Thomasina Coverly’s iterated algorithms.

Tom Stoppard is singularly fond of following the interior logic of things – existence itself in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, ethics in Professional Foul, the theatrics of life in The Real Thing and, in Arcadia, he rides the tail of Chaos theory while both mocking and applauding the irresistible urge in human beings to pursue ideas for their own sake. “It’s wanting to know that makes us matter-if the answers are in the back of the book, what a drag,” says one of the characters. Stoppard permits his theme to be rather baldly stated, but the verve with which he engages our curiosity is proof that he’s right.

The opening scene of Gale Edwards’ STC touring production reveals a huge drawing room with a cinemascope table and high, formal arched windows. Brian Thomson’s set is the very model of Classicism while being inscribed with Romantic iconography. Palely loitering over the walls and ceiling is the kind of bucolic landscape and billowing cloud in which Coleridge, Wordsworth and sister Dorothy trailed so gloriously and often. Indeed, this is the hinge on which the Sedley Park estate is being transformed- from the ordered geometries of the 18th Century garden to the artful wildness of Capability Brown and then to the studied excesses of the picturesque. Things are being changed utterly- from follies and hahas to the constructed crags and faked up ruins of Stoppard’s fictional landscape architect, Richard ‘Culpability’ Noakes.

The play begins awkwardly. Septimus Hodge, a lively young Oxonian is tutoring the equally lively Thomasina Coverly. Enter Ezra Chater, poet of the second, or even third, water, to challenge Hodge. I demand satisfaction, he hollers. Funny, that’s what your wife said, smirks Hodge. Egad, what is this ? Carry On Up Run For Your Wife ? Et in Arcadia Ego -not ! The writing teeters on low comedy until Stoppard, wisely, takes on ballast.

He begins to load the play with information. We get a potted history of the Gothic and the origins of the associated craze for landscape gardening. Then he switches to the present for a racily written exhange between Hannah Jarvis, biographer of Lady Caroline Lamb, and Bernard Nightingale, Byron scholar with an eye on the South Bank program. They also provide scads of background info -on literary feuds, houses, gardens and Nightingale outlines his forensic investigations into Byron’s visit to -and mysterious departure from- Sidley Park.

The threads extrude engagingly. Stoppard’s time flips give us the often mundane details of 1809 and then shift to the literary Cluedo enthusiastically pursued by Nightingale with bemused assistance from Jarvis. Bernard has only got eyes for Byron, but Hannah, with expert guidance from Valentine Coverly, mathematician and direct descendent , has become fascinated with some very elegant figurings from Thomasina’s notebook. By Act Two the play is sparking on all sixteen cylinders and Stoppard has his double helix plot working like a charm.

Arcadia is a stylish production- from Thomson’s cool design and Nigel Levings’ suave lighting to Gale Edward’s assured pacing. John Gaden, as Bernard, is splendid. An old hand with Stoppard, he thrives on the intelligence in the writing and makes the timing tick perfectly. Bernard is a shyster but when he quotes Byron, you can hear a mobile phone drop. Similarly, Helen Morse’s Hannah has a wry and nicely sustained wit. The crisply written bickering between the two leads is nimble and fun to watch. As the script settles, so do Paul English and Michelle Doake as Hodge and Thomasina. By the final scene these two have persuaded that not only has Stoppard written a sleuth satire, he has also produced a spine-shivery Gothic romance.

Other performers are less well served. Sarah Lambert is uneasy as Chloe, probably because Stoppard’s characterisation is a dud. However, playing the part like a Sloane Ranger’s version of Barbara Windsor doesn’t work. Nicholas Garsden’s Chater is needlessly twitty, sub-Black Adder stuff- and Peter Collingwood’s butler and Patrick Frost as Brice are both rather cod. Jane Harders steers a fine line against parody as Lady Croom- although Roger Kirk has over-dressed her. Gabriel Andrews is effective as the too-deep-for-words Gus and Paul Goddard’s Valentine is as fluent with the explanations as he is at number crunching.

Arcadia is a play full of cryptic pleasures and Stoppard darts through his material with a relish and curiosity which is often exhilarating. But like Noakes’ attempts to improve on nature, the playwright at times has too many features in his landcape. The central ideas, the literary pastiche, the artful plotting are Stoppard at his elegant best. All the more reason, surely, to ditch the hyperactive wordplay, the bicycle jokes and the drippy three door farce. Then Arcadia really would be perfect.

Adelaide Review, October 1995.

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