Friday, 6 March 2015

Arcadia

Many years ago, I was sat in my English Literature class at school, prepping for my A-Levels.

The topic of discussion was Tom Stoppard's work of art, Arcadia.  For once, I was enraptured with the conversation as we looked at the nature of chaos theory vs order; chaos in science, chaos in love, chaos in sex and chaos in fate, Fermat's Last Theorem, Byron and Japanese cars, the influence of the past on the misunderstandings of the present, Classicism vs Romanticism, dahlia's and a monkey bite, game books and tortoises all wrapped up in a candle lit waltz and some quick fire dialogue, rapier humour and sparkling wit.
Thus began a 15 year love affair with the play.  I am not the only one who loves it either.  A year ago the English Touring Theatre ran a poll to reveal the nation's favourite plays and Arcadia stood out on that list, coming in at number 4. 
Photography Credit Mark Douet
I was fortunate enough to be able to see a production of the Olivier award winning play in 1998 and then I discovered that the English Touring Theatre were bringing it to my home town (Bromley).  As my parents still live there, it was the perfect opportunity to grab some tickets for the Churchill Theatre and then go back to theirs for some of mum's home cooking.
I've tried to describe Arcadia to people who don't know it in so many different ways, but it never comes out quite the way I want it too.

It normally stars with "well, it has my favourite line from any play in it.

Chater:  You insulted my wife in the gazebo yesterday evening

Septimus: You are mistaken.  I made love to your wife in the gazebo.  She asked me to meet her there, I have her note somewhere, I dare say I could find it for you, and if someone is putting it about that I did not turn up, by God, sir, it is a slander

That pretty much sets the tone for the entire play.
Photography Credit Mark Douet
Arcadia is set in two time periods, 1809 and modern day, and all the action takes place in one central room of Sidley Park, the family home of the Croom / Coverly families. In 1809 Septimus Hodge is the tutor to Thomasina Croom, the precocious and endearingly innocent daughter of Lord and Lady Croom.  Lord Byron, the poet and school friend of Hodge, is staying for the weekend.  In the modern day, scholars Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightingale are trying to unravel the events of that weekend. 

The title of the play is taken from the longer phrase 'Et in Arcadia ego'; the accurate translation of which is the subject of some academic debate.  Arcadia refers to the pastoral ideal; the phrase literally translates as "and in Arcadia I" but a 1637 painting by Poussin offers the translation of 'Even in Arcadia, there am I', spoken by Death.  This duality of meaning is typical of Stoppard throughout this play as well as foreshadowing events to come; Thomasina's eventual death and Septimus' subsequent madness and self-banishment from society as he tries to prove her theories.

One of the common criticism of Arcadia is that it is frankly too clever by half and can leave you feeling a bit disgruntled.  It is an incredibly wordy play, very 'Stoppardy' (he of the Rosencratz and Guildenstern Are Dead fame), with quick fire dialogue that explores chaos theory, the nature of time and the idea that time, once mixed, like jam in porridge, cannot be unmixed by simply stirring the other way.  Stoppard turns this on its head though by looking at the nature of scholarly historical research, how we interpret evidence and documentation, and how we can form compelling arguments for situations that never happened.  Fabrications born out of our own mind, mountains out of molehills and the significant from the trivial.
Photography Credit Mark Douet
What can never be accounted for is sex, the influence of sex on our actions and how our own human natures can override any form of logical behaviour.  Arcadia is inherently human,and the Director, Blanche McIntryre is quoted as saying that 'it is the only play I know that reaches all four points of the compass...it is intellectually daring and it has the courage to communicate complex arguments to an audience.  It also has humanity and it has wit and it's very rare to find a play with all these qualities".

Characters embody these functions.  Valentine, the modern day eldest son of the household, is cynical, clinical and detached.  He is dry and observant, putting all his faith into his formulas, and yet is thrown at the idea that Thomasina, a home educated 19C, 13 year old girl, could be exploring concepts that have only been in existence for a few years, calculating sums that his laptop needs to process a few million times.  Thomasina alternates between being a precocious, intellectually advanced woman who is grasping around the edges of concepts she does not have the life experience to yet draw parallels with, and a little girl who is still excited at the idea of boiled ham, cabbages and a rice pudding for dinner.
Photography Credit Mark Douet
Lady Croom, on the other hand, is wild and exuberant, an outrageous flirt who rules the house with an iron fist, an lady who is established in position and power and confident in her own overriding sense of presence and intellect, however misguided, whilst Chloe, Valentine's sister is young and naive, sexual but unsure of herself, a flirt but terrified when her flirtations are acted upon.
Photography Credit Mark Douet
Photography Credit Mark Douet
Hannah and Bernard are two sides of the same academic coin, one measured, considered and evidence focused, the other arrogant, sweeping and generalising.  As a partnership, they are sublime as they carve small academic chunks out of each other.
Photography Credit Mark Douet
Linking both time periods is the character of Augustus or Gus.  Augustus in 1809, Gus in the modern day.  The same actor portrays both characters, the arrogant young lord who alternates between ordering Septimus around and appealing to him for advice and guidance whilst the shy Gus, completely mute and introverted, provides a gentleness that acts as a counterpoint to Bernard's boisterous nature.
Photography Credit Mark Douet
This particular adaptation, was just scrumptious to watch.  Most of the characters were spot on, as I have always envisioned them being.  Septimus (Wilf Scolding), Lady Croom (Kirsty Besterman), Hannah (Flora Montgomery), Chloe (Roa Zmitrowicz) and Bernard (Robert Cavanah) were just wonderful and an absolute joy to watch.  Hannah Jarvis is an absolute gift of a role for an actress, one of the few well rounded, complex female characters that are out there, and Montogomery was a joy to watch.
Thomasina was good in places, but not as consistent as I would have liked her to be (I couldn't understand her lines in a couple of places, luckily I am very familiar with the script or this would have been a problem).  Chater was, I am sorry to say, an utter disappointment with none of the gormless vanity that I so hoped to see, incredibly stiff and often stood with his back to the audience so his words and facial expressions were obscured.
Photography Credit Mark Douet
I loved the set and lighting in this production - it was simple (as it needed to be for a touring show) but still conveyed the sense of grandeur of the stately home.  Steve was a bit upset that they hadn't bothered to mask and paint the flat joins, particularly on the roof, which did stand out a bit.  The table became almost another character, littered with paraphernalia from both time periods throughout that are juxtaposed together, including the tortoise Plautus (or Lightening depending on your time period).  I was a little annoyed when Bernard's briefcase was left on the table as it completely blocked my view of the artists impression of the gardens; quite an important feature of the play!
Overall though, this play was a delight to watch.  Steve went in absolutely blind, knowing only that it is my favourite play, and really enjoyed it. I would strongly recommend going to see it while you can!  It is on tour until the 18th April - see here for dates and venues.

The reason I was so keen to see this play again, other than the fact that I love it, is that I have been approved to direct it for the Canterbury Players autumn show at the Gulbenkian theatre. 

I think I have quite a legacy to try and live up to.  I have already started my planning process and will be auditioning in the summer.  It is an utterly complex play and every time I read it I get a new insight into a character, an exchange or a concept.  To attempt to realise that is an incredibly daunting prospect  Wish me luck!

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