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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Duke of York’s


  Neil Pearson and Samantha Bond

One can easily feel a bit dim watching a Tom Stoppard  play. But more often the opposite is true: a great Stoppard work can just as easily bestow the sensation of, if not extraordinary intelligence, then at least the emboldening sensation of experiencing the universe in all its chameleon cobweb complexity, albeit fleetingly. Arcadia is one such piece: a tricksy, cerebral, comic fantasia that sends chaos theory, the clash between Enlightenment ideals and the Romantic imagination, astrophysics and Fermat's Last Theorum spinning through its parallel narrative worlds like planets moving in perfect suspension. Yes, it's often mind boggling, yet the joy of David Leveaux's  revival is the lucidity and humanity it brings to what is essentially a play about the nobility - and potential futility - of human endeavour.

Arcadia  takes place in two different centuries in Sidley Park - a grand old pile in Derbyshire where Byron once visited in 1809. Both narrative strands centre on an intellectual quest. In the early 1800s, brilliant, teenage Thomasina ( Jessie Cave)  is busy using iterative algorithms to predict the end of the world much to the general indifference of just about everyone, including her haughty mother (a pitch perfect Nancy Carroll ), busy bossily transforming her Capability Brown-designed gardens into a ghastly Romantic style grotto. Almost 200 years later an academic battle of wits is playing out between the popular historian and gardening aficionado Hannah (a lemon tart Samantha Bond ) and Neil Pearson's  megalomaniac, randy university don Nightingale over what prompted the poet Byron's abrupt departure from Sidley Park some 200 years previously: Nightingale thinks it's the result of a duel; Hannah is convinced there's no evidence.

Stoppard's great skill is to ensure both stories bounce off each other in endless synaptic configurations, so that ideas and theories constantly echo and reveberate across the centuries in gradually deepening patterns on the theme of humanity's hard-wired compulsion to keep pushing the frontiers of knowledge (be it through science, art or landscape gardening). And of course it's frequently gaspingly funny. It requires deceptively artlessly acting to illuminate - rather than labour - Stoppard's giddying wordplay, and David Leveaux's luminous production boasts several silkily precise performances, including Ed Stoppard's geeky, love-lorn mathematician Valentine, and Dan Steven's languidly sexy, ultimately tragic tutor Septimus Hodge, who realises too late his feelings for his precocious, doomed pupil Thomasina. For this is a play as much concerned with loss as it is achievement - be it the tragedy of what we can never know, the impermanence of human existence, and the fragility of facts and truth. It's become a cliche to say that this is the one Stoppard play in which his heart beats as loudly as the cogs whirring away inside his clearly enormous brain, but as the final scene, in which both worlds merge together in the form of an elegiac dance, its impossible to deny the play's fierce beauty and sense of apocalyptic desolation. This may be an intimidating night at the theatre, but it's also euphoric and exhilarating.


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