Arcadia – Review

Dakota Blue Richards in English Touring Theatre's Arcadia. Photo Mark Douet .
Dakota Blue Richards in English Touring Theatre’s Arcadia. Photo Mark Douet .

It’s been hailed as the greatest play of the twentieth century so Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia has an awfully big reputation to live up to.

Stoppard has caused controversy recently by suggesting that modern audiences are too ignorant to understand the literary references in his work and, up to a point, I’d have to agree.

Arcadia is a wonderfully witty comedy and detective story that traverses two time periods. The humour is laugh-out-loud funny but there are scenes, when characters start blathering on about algebra, algorithms and maths, that caused my eyes to glaze over.

Most of us, if we’re honest, hated algebra at school so why would we want to listen to someone discussing formula and maths theorem in a drama? And why is the playwright so obsessed with it?

Stoppard’s rose tinted opinions about audiences are nothing more than nostalgia for a time when the only people ever to attend a theatre were the well-educated upper classes. They would have been familiar with everything the dramatist holds dear.

But time moves on and they now allow anyone into a theatre. Shocking as this may seem writers must now, not dumb down, but appreciate that their job isn’t to alienate seventy per cent of the audience who don’t know, or want to understand, Latin, the Greek classics, chaos theory or the second law of thermodynamics.

Valentine explains the maths to Hannah in Arcadia.
Valentine explains the maths to Hannah in Arcadia.

So, Arcadia. There were a noticeable number of empty seats after¬†the interval when I watched the production at Aylesbury Waterside this week. An elderly couple in front of me didn’t have a clue what was going on and spent most of the first half admiring the venue’s interior.

Which was a shame because, even if you extracted the tedious mentions of maths, there remains an engaging and smart story.

The scene is a large country house, circa 1809, where we meet a brilliant 13-year-old (Dakota Blue Richards looking a decade older) who is being tutored.

But her thoughts are drifting away from maths to wanting an explanation as to what exactly was a “carnal embrace”. It turns out that someone had been seen in the gazebo with the wife of a visiting poet.

In a series of fluid moves we see the story move effortlessly back and forward from 1809 to the modern day and the quest by a pair of academics to solve the riddle of whether Lord Byron may have been responsible for a murder.

It’s a clever and intriguing story beautifully told by director Blanche McIntyre and it’s no wonder that English Touring Theatre was so keen to give it an airing.

Robert Cavanah and Flora Montgomery as university don Bernard Nightingale and Byron expert Hannah Jarvis, spark off each other as they probe what went on in the 19th century scandal.

While Ed MacArthur as the super intellectual mathematician Valentine Coverly and Richards’ Thomasina Coverly, his ancester, espouse at length about their favourite subject.

Wilf Scolding, as the lecherous Georgian tutor, is riotously funny as he extricates himself from one accusation after another. I found myself looking forward to his scenes to lift the story out of the classroom.

It’s clear the cast relish the challenge of a play like this. Arcadia is intelligent, unpredictable and makes you think.

Is it a masterpiece? Certainly in terms of plotting, staging and performing but, for general mass market appeal? The class is still in recess.

Arcadia runs at The Waterside until tomorrow.

****stars

2015 Tour Dates

March 9-14, Hall for Cornwall, Truro
March 23-28, New Alexandra Theatre Birmingham
March 30-April 4, Cambridge Arts Theatre
April 6-11, Malvern Theatres, Malvern
April 13-18, Oxford Playhouse.

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