Arcadia

Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard, was directed by Jan Rae and was performed at the Edward Alleyn Theatre, Dulwich College in July 2011.

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Review by John Hedley

The plot of Arcadia is about........ well, a basic grasp of iterative algorithms may assist the audience in determining the relationship, transcending the centuries, between landscape gardening, Fermat's last theorem, literary detective work, academic jealousies, precocious mathematical genius, real or imaginary hermits and carnal embrace in the gazebo - all intertwined with the presence, unseen, of Lord Byron. Tom Stoppard's work is a daunting challenge for actors and audience alike, but the actors at least have the advantage over the audience of studying the text in detail, rather than having to "get it" first time. It is one of those plays that must be read and re-read to appreciate its true depths. The Dulwich Players did justice to the intricacies of the piece. Despite its length, Jan Rae's direction ensured that the production was tight and the pace rarely faltered. The dialogue was rapid, clear and snappy, demanding the concentration of the audience throughout. Moreover, if anyone in the front rows had been unwise enough to allow their thoughts to drift away from the pursuit of knowledge and good taste, the authoritative presence of Jane Jones as the imperious (though not wholly virtuous) Lady Croom, hair in splendidly tight ringlets, would soon have called them to order with a terse put-down

The opening night was memorable for a number of reasons - not least the performance of Georgina Morton as the young Thomasina Coverly. An audience senses, immediately, the presence on stage of someone with natural talent - apparently at ease, interacting effortlessly with other characters - simply living the part. As a precocious 13 year-old in Act One she exuded a sweet innocence belied by her intelligence. Then (doubtless aided by the expert attentions of the make-up department in the interval) she blossomed as the romantic 16 year-old, desperate to know everything, to learn to waltz and to marry Lord Byron - but not necessarily in that order. She was totally believable in her transformation. Here is a young actress who, given a modicum of good fortune, has a bright theatrical future ahead of her. Act Two opens with a lengthy speech by the modern-day academic and literary sleuth BernardIn a review of this complex play with a sizeable cast list, it is not possible to mention all the characters and actors individually. Suffice to say that the modern-day and 19th century casts meshed together splendidly and were clearly enjoying the experience of sharing with us the depth and wit of the play widely regarded as Stoppard's finest. The audience left feeling entertained, intellectually challenged and, hopefully, somewhat the wiser about landscape gardening, iterative algorithms.......... and iterative carnal embrace. Nightingale, played with exuberance by David St Clare Nelson. This was a tour de force as he practised a forthcoming lecture, revealing his sensational "discovery" about Byron, before a clutch of unwilling and less than appreciative listeners. David's flamboyant gestures were matched only by his outrageously colourful garb, as he expounded his "revelation" that Byron's sudden but well-documented flight to Portugal was motivated by a duel in which he had killed a fellow poet, the hapless and cuckolded Ezra Chater (played with a suitably puzzled demeanour by Kevin Edwards). 

Special mention also belongs to Michael Fife for his portrayal of Septimus Hodge, the tutor to Thomasina and seducer of every other female in the vicinity - a pastime shared with his former school-chum Byron. While opinion may differ as to whether Michael's physical attributes surpass those of Rufus Sewell, who played the role in the original National Theatre production, there can be no doubt as to his ability to project the complex subtleties of this charming, calculating yet ultimately honourable character. The final scene, with Septimus waltzing with Thomasina, was both touching and tender (aided by some excellent lighting effects from Chris Morphy-Godber). The set was simple, with background white drapes producing an ethereal effect appropriate to the emergence of characters from both the present day and the early 19th century. With the stage only encumbered by a lectern and a table cluttered with items from the present and the past (and of course "Lightning" the tortoise) the actors were able to use the space effectively to provide movement to enliven the piece's intellectual interchanges. The props included some beautiful period artefacts and a superb architectural design book for Thomasina to deface with her drawing of the hermit - warm plaudits are due to the props team.