Tom Stoppard’s masterpiece Arcadia launches the audience into realms of scientific discovery, love and truth. In revealing the relationships among characters who dwell in two different time periods in England’s Sidley Park, Stoppard explores fascinating themes. Along their enlightened journeys, the characters delve into highly complex, mathematical and scientific theories.
On one level Bedlam’s production directed by Erick Tucker at the West End Theatre does justice to Stoppard’s Arcadia. On another level it fails to deliver the excitement of the quest for truth that Stoppard’s work so richly imbues with wit, humor, repartee and beautifully crafted dialogue.
Director Eric Tucker stages Arcadia with the maverick in mind
Tucker stages Arcadia with the maverick in mind. For example when the audience returns after the intermission for Act II, they take their seats on the stage, while the actors perform in the audiences’ seats and the remaining stage space. Practically, this different perspective allows the audience to understand the action from a different vantage point. Also, it fuels their energy throughout the three-hour performance. Bedlam’s production also benefits from Charlotte Palmer-Lane’s fine costume design, John McDermott’s scenic design and Les Dickert’s atmospheric lighting design.
However, the unraked seating left much to be desired. Those in the back rows had to strain to see the action between the heads and bodies of those sitting in front of them. Additionally, the actors needed to precisely accommodate the acoustical issues with the theater space arrangements. At times, they did not. The lovely West End Theatre space conveys a timeless, immutable quality. But the overall ensemble’s speech clarity lacked the precision and acuity required for Stoppard’s language in such a space.
Stoppard’s rich dialogue suffers from the staging’s acoustical issues
With simplistic language, the staging wouldn’t have mattered as much. But Stoppard’s dialogue, rich in poetic rhythms, irony, and sage thrusts and parries, suffered. At times the actors didn’t enunciate clearly. The quips disappeared in garbles or lower modulations. As a result significant words and details vanished. The impact of the characters’ gradual discoveries leading to the emotional and poignant conclusion deflated like a balloon with the air let out.
Bedlam fell down on its mission to create a “new, fresh, active environment.” Thus, the storytelling result wasn’t a full “kinetic experience of shared empathy.” Nevertheless, I still enjoyed the production and many elements are top-notch. Fortunately, I’ve read Arcadia a number of times and have seen it performed before. So I could work through the dialogue lapses. Overall, the production cohered, and striking moments conveying the conceptual and spiritual stayed with me.
Parallel stories in the past and present
Stoppard creates parallel stories in the past and present that eventually merge, as ideas discussed in the past emerge in the present. Thomasina Coverly, the genius teenager of the Crooms of Sidley Park, presciently discusses mathematics, nature, and physics. Encouraged by her tutor Septimus Hodge, a friend of Lord Byron (an unseen guest), she intuits the second law of thermodynamics and chaos theory.
Concurrently, in alternating scenes Stoppard introduces characters in the present who visit Sidley Park to do research. First, successful writer Hannah Jarvis visits to explore the life of a hermit who once lived on the grounds. Second, professor Bernard Nightingale visits to research whether Lord Byron killed a contemporaneous poet, Ezra Chater, in a duel at the Park. As Jarvis and Nightingale share their research and quarrel, their quests deepen. The concepts overlap the time periods. With the help of Valentine Coverly, son of the Croom heirs of Sidley Park, Jarvis and Nightingale discover what happened in the past with Thomasina and Septimus, Lord Byron and Ezra Chater.
Thanks to the fine actors the principal character relationships appear authentic
Thanks to the fine acting by the funny, charming Shaun Taylor-Corbett as Septimus and the believable Caroline Grogan as Thomasina, the plot and themes stay grounded. Their characters are central to both stories in the past and present. They portray Septimus and Thomasina with specificity.
Taylor-Corbett’s Septimus appreciates Thomasina’s astute questions arising from her intuitive scientific observations. Indeed, these turn Newton’s discoveries about the laws of motion on their head. For example, she asks why the jam in the pudding cannot be stirred out of it. And why heat always goes to cold and not the reverse. Septimus concurs and we note that the clever Thomasina even posits entropy as Septimus makes a joke.
In their witty repartee Grogan’s lightening-bright manner and Taylor-Corbett’s guided, truthful responses from the outset inform the respect the characters have for each other. From their mutual admiration over the three and a half years of the action we watch their growth together and we understand their love. Additionally, we understand why Septimus lives the rest of his life in the hermitage after Thomasina dies a tragic death.
It is the vitality of this relationship that sets up the antithetical, modern relationship between Jarvis (Zuzanna Szadkowski) and the pompous Nightingale (Elan Zafir). Ironically, Nightingale has dunned Jarvis’ work in a scathing review. Yet, Jarvis forgives him and they collaborate and share information gleaned from Thomasina’s primer, and various letters to Septimus, etc. Likewise, the insistent Valentine Coverly (Mike Labbadia) and Jarvis collaborate. And he shows his interest in her which she spurns. Finally, Jarvis blows apart Nightingale’s theory about Byron after he publicizes it on TV and makes a fool of himself.
The present-day couples are less likable
In contrast, Szadkowski’s Jarvis and Zafir’s Nightingale don’t love or respect one another. The same abides between Jarvis and Valentine. As the modern researchers, they are abrasive and lack the humorous wit and brilliance of the characters of the previous century. Thus, we like them less in comparison to the delightful, brilliant Septimus and Thomasina. In their search for scientific truths, those of the past appear brighter because their surrounding darkness and lack of knowledge is greater.
On the other hand, Nightingale, who should not be afraid to search for accuracy in the modern age, seeks notoriety instead. Indeed, because he presumptuously ignores Jarvis’ warnings and presents false information, she can’t respect him. And he doesn’t respect her for exposing him, a fault he refuses to recognize.
Importantly, Stoppard reveals how love tangles the order of conventions and appears to create chaos. However, he brings together out of the disorder of the final scenes, an order which director Eric Tucker elucidates. In the last part of Act II, characters from the past and present throw books (ideas) to each other. Though the dialogue seems random, it follows, and that interaction among the characters from each time period makes sense.
The spirits of the past haunt those in the present
Indeed, the spirits of the past haunt those in the present, mysteriously exerting their influence so that the truth might be discovered. The symbolism of haunting shows up in Dickert’s lighting design and is integral to Bedlam’s presentation of Arcadia. For example, toward the conclusion in the darkness of the audience section, a lone figure walks with a lamp from left to right in the last row of the seats. We are reminded of how much is uncertain, and how searching for the truth over what one wants the truth to be requires courage. Such a search is like a lone light in the darkness, which eventually illuminates discovery.
By the conclusion we see tragedy unfold before us as Septimus and Thomasina waltz. We don’t need to see anything more. We understand and are left feeling the poignance and sad beauty knowing it is her last dance right before her 17th birthday.
Bedlam’s Arcadia is a worthy iteration and revival. If you are unfamiliar with the play, read it first to more easily follow some of the dialogue, a word of which must not be missed.