Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia

Last week I went to London for one night only: nine hours of train-travel in the pursuit of art (facilitated by having a railcard, very generous friends and few binding commitments).

The reason for my trip was Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, which I was to see on stage with my adopted and far more culturally-savvy London family.

This West End production, directed by David Leveaux, is the first since the play’s 1993 premiere. Leveaux is the first to revive Arcadia not because it’s not good (it’s excellent) but because it’s daunting. It is a play of big, basic questions; of eroticism and advanced mathematics; of silent nuance and laugh-out-loud wit.

Arcadia is a drama of ideas: Chaos Theory, poetry, Classical versus Romantic temperaments, algebra and landscape gardening – they’re all there. But it is not simply a showcase of Stoppardian cleverness: these are the ideas that help us to understand ‘the ordinary-sized stuff which is our lives’. Chaos Theory, as earnest PhD student Valentine Coverly (absorbingly played by Ed Stoppard, son of Tom) explains, deals in the very randomness of our universe: ‘The unpredictable and the predetermined unfold together to make everything the way it is.’

Togetherness – the ‘unfolding together’- is key. Insularity and conclusion are trumped by process and convergence. Set in a country house in both 1809 and the present day, Stoppard’s nineteenth-century characters strive to plot the future while their modern descendants attempt to piece together the past. Action switches between the two times, which are played out in the same Georgian room. The centrepiece is a long, wooden table which collects Latin primers and coffee cups, an elegant candlestick and a laptop, until the two centuries meet with their characters sharing the stage. As Thomasina Coverly, thirteen-year-old daughter of the 1809 household observes with foresight, ‘You cannot stir things apart’.

Arcadia asks the question underlying all others: what’s the point in asking questions? Characters argue the relative importance of their academic pursuits (art and science, or ‘personalities’ and ‘knowledge’), but the answer lies with neither: ‘Comparing what we’re looking for misses the point. It’s wanting to know that makes us matter. Otherwise we’re going out the way we came in.’

I certainly went out differently.


Arcadia is playing at The Duke of York’s Theatre, London, until 12 September

This was originally published, in a less blog-ish form, on The List’s website.

~ by Griselda Murray Brown on July 30, 2009.

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