sat 13/07/2024

Arcadia, Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol | reviews, news & interviews

Arcadia, Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

Arcadia, Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

Stoppard's 20-year-old classic has more head than heart

Dorothea Myer-Bennett brings commanding assurance to the forceful Lady CroomGraham Burke

The popularity of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia owes a great deal to the play’s brilliant weave of themes and ideas, outlined by characters from two different historical periods – Romantic and modern. There is breathtaking brio in the way the writer’s skill combines so many strands, with both humour and irony: from the mathematics of Fermat’s theorem to the exploration of fractals, and from the limits of rationalism to the flights of fancy that inhabit science just as much as poetry.

This is director Andrew Hilton’s first venture into contemporary theatre – he has mostly tackled Shakespeare, but also Chekhov and Molière. This season, the company’s As You Like It, resonates neatly with some of the concerns in Stoppard's play. The Arcadian fantasy of Nature as the source of an unmediated innocence and wisdom runs through both plays, though more explicitly in Stoppard’s work, where the tradition of the English garden, in which Nature can be followed, imitated or indeed manufactured, is both subject-matter and metaphor.

Arcadia is a heady piece of work: the summit of British theatrical cleverness as entertainment. The wit sparkles and the ideas fly – as they indeed should. Andrew Hilton has cast a generally excellent group of actors, who surf the waves of verbal and intellectual brilliance with great energy and skill. The production moves seamlessly between the contrasting historical periods, each change managed in such a way as to recharge the momentum of the narrative. In choosing to focus the action around a large table, the production doesn’t just make the most of the 360° audience view, but also provides the containment of an alchemical vessel in which the various transformations of the play can brew and unfold.

Hannah Lee as Thomasina CoverlyHannah Lee (pictured left), the star of the show, captures perfectly the fiery passion of young Thomasina Coverly – her love of knowledge and her wit subtly tempered by teenage vulnerability. Her tutor and mentor Septimus Hodge is very ably played by Piers Wehner, who seizes well the mercurial mix of cunning and charm that the young woman finds so inspiring – and indeed seductive. In a play that starts with a hilarious discussion of the meaning of “carnal embrace”, matters of sex are never far away, reflecting the erotic nature of creativity and intellectual play. The play’s other central relationship, the almost bitchy rivalry between the academic Bernard Nightingale and the writer Hannah Jarvis, acts as a modern-day distorting mirror of the emerging dance between Septimus and Thomasina. Polly Frame captures well the sharp-tongued yet emotionally brittle woman writer, patronized by the Sussex don, who is perhaps a little overdone in Matthew Thomas’s slightly camp posturing: it is never clear just how much his "media don" pose, underlined by an over-rehearsed series of Tigger-ish movements, is meant to be caricature or perhaps just a less-than-convincing piece of acting.

In a generally good cast, Dorothea Myer-Bennett brings commanding assurance to the forceful Lady Croom – you can tell where Thomasina gets her feistiness – and Vincenzo Pellegrino manages the emotional turmoil that undermines the minor poet Ezra Chater with particular skill. 

The passion that drives the characters and story of Arcadia is above all intellectual. The wit in Stoppard’s writing, and his brilliant handling of intertwined strands of narrative, are dazzling. But, although in this production the players are as energetic as can be – in perfect tune with the sparkle of the text – we get little sense of their inner lives. The passions of the heart, rather than the head, get a look-in at the very end, but almost too late.

Although Hilton’s Arcadia is an exquisitely well-honed piece of live theatre, it remains, because of the limitations of Stoppard’s conception, superior entertainment rather than a profound theatrical experience.

Arcadia is a heady piece of work: the summit of British theatrical cleverness as entertainment


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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