Arcadia, Duke of York’s Theatre, June 2009


This Tom Stoppard play cleverly juxtaposes the modern world with the early nineteenth century, and in particular modern literary scholarship and mathematics with the earlier emphasis on literary creativity, classical study and scientific enquiry. In the early period we have a very clever girl of 16 named Thomasina, played by Jessica Cave, and her tutor Septimus Hodge, wittily played by Dan Stevens, along with a poet, and others. These early nineteenth century characters are juxtaposed in the modern world by a dreadful literary academic named Bernard Nightingale, played by Neil Pearson, along with an author named Hannah, wittily played by Samantha Bond, and a clever but rather intense mathematician named Valentine, very ably portrayed by Ed Stoppard.

Hannah is doing a book about the history of the Derbyshire country estate where all the action takes place, and Bernard visits with questions about Byron staying there in the early nineteenth century, and some slightly daft and ultimately irrelevant ideas about was going on at the time. While Bernard and Hannah plumb the past, those in the past enquire about the future. Thomasina hits on the idea of the second law of thermodynamics to explain the arrow of time, whose direction is entirely absent from Newton’s laws of motion, which are the same going backwards or forwards. As she points out, you can stir jam into a rice pudding, but you can’t stir it out again, and the three laws of Thermodynamics have often been wittily stated as: you can’t win, you can’t break even, and you can’t get out of the game. The second law says that available energy gradually becomes unavailable, so that in the long run everything will be at ‘room temperature’ and the universe will die out. Thomasina also discusses mathematics with her tutor, and devises an iterated algorithm that Valentine, in the modern world with his Apple laptop, is able to use to create beautiful shapes of nature.

The ability to make this into theatre is Stoppard’s genius, and while the main passion is intellectual, he sprinkles sex into both periods. The women are keen for some fun, and in the early period a poet’s wife, whom we never see on stage, along with Lady Croom, elegantly played by Nancy Carroll, breathe sexual allure into the proceedings. In the modern world Hannah shows desire for the dreadful Bernard, and the young Chloë Coverly, charmingly played by Lucy Griffiths, shows a bright interest in things sexual as did her earlier incarnation as Thomasina, who starts the play off by asking her tutor what carnal embrace means. In the end she desires more than words from her tutor, but when she goes to bed with papers and a candle we realise this is where her room goes up in flames and her genius is lost forever.

This revival is by David Leveaux, with sets and lighting by Hildegard Bechtler and Paul Anderson, but on the Duke of York’s stage it is unfortunately more cramped than when I saw it at the National in 1993, and the impression of extensive gardens behind the house is lost. The acting was very good, though I would have preferred more charm from Jessica Cave as Thomasina, whose high-pitched voice resonated sharpness, while Neil Pearson could have made Bernard less obnoxious and more smugly clever, which may have kept things in better balance. But Samantha Bond, Ed Stoppard and Dan Stevens were a delight to watch.

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