It’s a well-known fact that Stoppard’s masterpiece ‘Arcadia’ can prove challenging at times for even the most seasoned performers and audiences. Theatre Group’s decision, then, to take on this ambitious play should be applauded for its audacity, as their performance in the Banham Theatre was achieved in spectacular fashion for all who came to watch. The play’s director Jo Langdon offered a stylized and coherent interpretation of the play that still managed to maintain its complexity, whilst the performance on stage was characteristic of the Theatre Group’s continued excellency in the performing arts repeatedly on show at the University.
The play revolves around a series of contradictions, employing two divergent time plots which run alongside each other, intersecting at various points. The first of these plots centres on the Romantic world of Sidley House in 1809, and the trials and tribulations between the young Lady Thomasina Coverly and her charismatic tutor Septimus Hodge. Set in the same room in the present day, the second plot revolves around the sparring academics Hannah Jarvis and Bernard Nightingale who clash over their attempts to uncover historical and poetic ‘scandals’ said to have taken place in the house in the past. The key scandal which Hannah and Bernard dispute regards the enigmatic poet Lord Byron and his short lived stay on the estate, with Bernard determining that Byron killed the poet Ezra Chater in a duel during his stay, and thus causing Byron’s unexpected departure from England in 1809. Events in the first time plot however disprove and mock Bernard’s thesis, and instead celebrate the comic vibrancy of Septimus, the unrivalled genius of Thomasina and the nervous promiscuity that accompanies this dynamic duo.
The fusing of time – both past and present – becomes increasingly unstable as the play goes on, creating incongruities which mimic Stoppard’s fascination with the conflict between order and chaos in the world. Attempts to find order amongst the chaos unravels through a sharp wit present in all the characters on stage, as the play’s interlocking of narratives leads to a poignant and coherent unity at the end of the piece. In an increasingly complex plot which often defies simple categorisation, Stoppard imbues in his characters continual conflicts over the dichotomies of our existence. Truth and time, science and poetry, the classical and the Romantic, and the disruptive influence of sex – ‘the attraction which Newton left out’ – all manifest and unite in an increasingly vibrant and poetic realisation of the play.
Theatre Group’s performance paid an honorary tribute to Stoppard’s play, and allowed for a fluid interconnection between the opposing and interlocking forces that it embodies. The play’s staging centres around a table in the Sidley House drawing room, as the plots between past and present converge in this space, and reciprocally interact with one another throughout the piece. Langdon’s use of two doors at either end of the stage allowed for carefully measured transitioning between scenes and the divergent time frames, whilst the sharp movement of her characters emphasised the neat interaction of the performance between past and present narratives. The scathing dialogue set up between Dan Sareen’s Bernard and Izzy Kynoch’s Hannah enlivened the continual action, whilst Callum Macphee and Libby Lawton’s tender treatment of Septimus and Thomasina’s relationship was carried out with a delicate yet intoxicating attention to detail. In tying together such creatively diverse elements, the play itself and the performance excelled through its simple ability to encapsulate the audience, standing as another impressive achievement by Theatre Group; their formidable reputation continues to grow year by year.
Image: James Ward