Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard, directed by David Leveaux

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Sam Cox as Jellaby in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia
Sam Cox as Jellaby in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia

by Tom Stoppard
at the Duke of York’s Theatre

Directed by David Leveaux

Samantha Bond – Hannah
Nancy Carroll – Lady Croom
Jessie Cave – Thomasina
Neil Pearson – Bernard
Dan Stevens – Septimus
Ed Stoppard – Valentine
Trevor Cooper – Richard Noakes
Sam Cox – Jellaby
Lucy Griffiths – Chloey
Tom Hodgkins – Captain Brice
Hugh Mitchell – Augustus/Gus Coverly
George Potts – Ezra

Brains at the boiling point. Critics mostly ate up the revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1993 puzzle comedy, Arcadia, with a spoon. So why on leaving the theatre did I find not a single idea revolving in my mind? Arcadia is stuffed with ideas—about chaos theory, literary ambition, Newton’s impact on physics, and much more—which whiz by like packed cars on the Piccadilly line. “Maybe they’re more thought-provoking,” my companion mused, “if you haven’t thought them before.” She was pointing to the relatively shallow level of discourse on stage. Half a dozen characters who pass for brilliant, or at least A-levels bright, are set in motion to produce talky-talk about deep subjects. But as one character observes tartly, a retort isn’t the same thing as an answer. And repartee is the opposite of revelation. which gives Arcadia, for all its manic verbiage, an air of chilliness. With tongues as pointed as épées, these people are ever on the retort, but their answers remain at the level of flash.

I saw the original production, which was more lavish than this bare-bones one, whose set consisted of a pale-blue country-house room with a table in the middle and nothing on the walls. The room is occupied by two alternating casts mirroring each other, one set in 1810, the other in the present. Afoot are a pair of literary detectives in the here and now trying to uncover the behavior of aristocrats in the bygone. Stoppard cannot be bettered for cleverness, so there’s no synopsis that could be less than a thousand words. Suffice it that Lord Byron may or may not have visited the house, and he may or may not have shot a paltry poetaster after seducing his wife. Larded into the literary riddle is a discussion of how the universe works and whether the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which explains entropy and the cooling-off of the cosmos, makes all human activity futile, including love, poetry, and science itself. (This isn’t a serious dilemma , is it? If so, to whom—people who worry about their investments twenty billion years from now?)

Presumably our chances to live in Arcadia have grown slimmer since Newton’s law was discovered—according to physics, no past state can be recovered, even by reversing time, because the heat given off by all things disperses and is forever lost, like evaporating steam—but Stoppard is on the side of the artists and humanists who find an loophole through the imagination. Present on the stage is a landscape gardener in the romantic-gothic style that was sweeping away the old regular formality of hedged-in parterres and trees grouped in allees, in favor of wild, dishevelled Nature. Both are conceits devised by landscapers to amuse their wealthy patrons, but Stoppard plumps for gardening as a larger metaphor for mankind’s relationship to the universe, our inability to live with disorder, which yet entices us out of the boring strictures of order. To give the impression of depth, Stoppard juggles all the balls in the air at once, making it unpredictable (chaotic?) when one subject will switch course to another. The experience of watching Arcadia is like a three-ring intellectual circus, and although the spectacle is dazzling, how much can you get, really, by listening to three lectures at once?

I wouldn’t have chafed so much except that the director has encouraged a lot of hectoring, particularly from the two literary combatants in the present: Hannah, a successful writer of historical novels, and a fame-driven don, Bernard. It would have worked to tell either Samantha Bond or Neil Pearson, both strong actors, to shout for long stretches, perhaps, but both? Because of her screechy top notes, I’d vote for Bond to calm down. In the historical scenes the majority of stage time is given to a private tutor and friend of Byron’s, Septimus Hodge, and his scientifically precocious pupil, Thomasina Coverly, who in the wittiest ploy of the drama hits upon the basic breakthrough of modern chaos theory at age thirteen. As Septimus, Dan Stevens stands out for his quiet, measured, intelligent portrayal—more of him, please—and although I found it hard to believe that he was secretly seducing every woman on the premises, he stuck in the mind after Stoppard’s relentless dialogue had turned into a faint buzz. As Thomasina, Jessie Cave gave the impression of irrepressible curiosity, and she never cuted up the part, but she had a bad instinct for joining in the screeching chorus that set one’s teeth on edge.

Stoppard isn’t really in the line of George Bernard Shaw, the English stage’s other great wit inflamed with improving ideas for the audience. The difference lies in that word, improving. Stoppard isn’t out to improve anyone. His brilliant contrivances have been criticized for not touching the heart (less so now that he is an eminence), but my problem with him is that his ideas don’t carry much personal meaning, not for me, at least—I can’t speak for him. They are like a magician’s multi-colored silk handkerchiefs spewed out of a hat in a never-ending stream. Jest is the proper medium for a jester, but Stoppard is advertised as more, as a thinker and, at times, even a poet. If you say so. It’s one thing to stir our brains to the boiling point, another to make the mind understand something worth understanding. We were invited to a feast and found the table loaded with bags of popcorn.

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