Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (1993) is a masterpiece of the modern age. It juggles past and present, order and chaos, the meaning of life and its destruction, the comedic and the profound. It’s a play of juxtapositions which at its heart explores the nature of human life. It has two strands to the plot, one in 1809 where Septimus Hodge (friend to Lord Byron, the Romantic Poet) is tutoring Thomasina Coverly, the daughter of the house, in Mathematics and Latin. Meanwhile, in the present day, Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightingale are two academics who attempt to uncover the history of the house despite their conflicts, with Hannah working on the story of the resident hermit of Sidley Park while Bernard investigates the mysterious chapter in Lord Byron’s life. As the play progresses, the past and present continue to interweave, waltzing around one another until they almost collide.
Stoppard’s play says a lot about society, the relationship between fantasy and fact and the debated importance of the humanities against a scientific study of the world. LUTG’s production of the play shows not only an awareness but a tactful engagement with these themes. The actors demonstrate a definite knowledge of the play’s meaning and sub-text in a well-crafted performance. The central feature of Stoppard’s play is the interchange between the old and new, past and present, which could quickly become clumsy, but didn’t as the stagecraft in placing the actors on stage simultaneously and interchangeably, rather than in divided opposition with one another, showed an exceptional skill. Hats off to the director there.
While the set of the play was somewhat sparse and lacked some of the Oscar Wilde style features of an elaborate drawing room, the blank canvas did allow for the focus to remain on the actors, their skill and narrative. In this way, the more minimalistic constituent features did enhance some aspects of the play. In particular, rather than the focus being on props, it was on the witty interchanges between characters. Those of Lady Croom (Katie Marrin) were especially well- timed, maximising the humorous tone of the literary references (most notably those mocking the exaggerated Gothic style of the garden) in an appropriately bumptious manner. Equally, the chemistry between Septimus (Calum Lake) and Thomasina (Leonie Burnnert) was at a suitable level of flirtatious and sarky, perfect for their relationship and it’s progression throughout the play as Thomasina grows up.
The play’s final lines conclude ‘when we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore’ (Septimus), to which Thomasina replies ‘then we will dance’. At its heart, Arcadia is about dancing, an interweaving between opposite forces which ultimately ends in collapse, whether it be the collapse of a career or the universe itself. So time becomes precious, and with this in mind, LUTG make use of their time on stage. Their lively performance displays a professionalism in its understanding, a touch of humour in its presentation, but most of all an enmeshing of the new and the old to show that nothing is truly that different after all.