Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Arcadia Fire

July 02, 2009

Dan Stevens and Jessie Cave
Photo: Tristram Kenton 2009

It’s always good to start off with a bang. I’ve arrived in London, and started my trip here with a production that will be hard to beat as one of the year’s best. It’s the current revival of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia now showing at the Duke of York’s Theater in the West End. I’d not been exposed to the play live before and had been advised by friends that had that it was the best. play. ever. Their somewhat facetious hyperbole is not far off the mark. While, Arcadia may not tower over all other dramatic works of the English language, it’s certainly one of the great plays of the 20th century. What’s more, the current production directed by David Leveaux is immensely satisfying. It barrels head first into the rich complexity of Stoppard’s play without ever being ponderous and maintaining its very comic sensibility. There are many big laughs here for a comedy with such an intellectual scope.

I won’t lie. A knowledge of physics, Classics, and British literature will help somewhat in following all of the intellectual action in the play, though it is far from necessary. Arcadia deals with two story lines nearly 200 years apart playing out simultaneously in the same room of an English country manor. The contemporary thread concerns two academics who have come to the estate independently to work on pet projects, one concerning Lord Byron and a imagined duel between the poet and one of his contemporaries. Meanwhile, in 1809, the time of the imagined duel, we witness the daughter of the estate, Thomasina Coverly, and her tutor, Septimus Hodge, uncovering scientific principles that will resonate for centuries. Coverly and Hodge are also characters in the story leading up to the theorized duel and, on one level, the play is a literary mystery being unraveled from two directions at once not unlike A. S. Byatt’s Possession. But there’s so much more here as Stoppard takes on themes related to physics and math, the big bang, decay, the nature of truth, and, while he’s at it, the human condition. All in one room. All in a series of conversations between characters about books, ideas, and the politics of landscape design. Think Shaw without the preaching. The ending is one of the most beautiful conclusions on stage I've seen.

The performances are stupendous. At its center is Samantha Bond as Hannah Jarvis, the academic and defender of proof in the contemporary story. She’s the perfect foil to Neil Pearson’s Bernard Nightingale who longs to publish first and ask questions later. Ed Stoppard plays Valentine Coverly, the modern day family title holder and mathematician working on the equations that run the universe. Stoppard manages to avoid too much brooding while creating real angst in discussions about math and the universe. In the 19th century we have Dan Steven’s hilarious frustrated libertine, Septimus Hodge, and his pupil played with real convincing earnestness by Jessie Cave who makes her West End debut. It’s astonishing to see such a lively engaging ensemble cast in a play of ideas. I won't pretend to say that I caught every last thing in this blisteringly sophisticated, adult comedy. But I also don't want to leave the impression that the evening is overly complex. It's one of those rare theater experiences where you want to sit through the whole three hours again immediately when its over. And if I were in London longer, I certainly would.



Your facetious friend sounds very wise. Hope you guys are having a great trip.
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