Posted on: 17 June 2009 by Gareth Hargreaves

Laurence Green reviews the absorbing comedy drama Arcadia at the Duke of York’s theatre.

Arcadia at the Duke of York’s theatreThe way in which the past shapes our future is imaginatively explored by Tom Stoppard in his complex but absorbing comedy drama Arcadia which has been revived for the first time in 16 years in a handsome new production directed by David Levaux at the Duke of York’s Theatre.

The story is set in two different periods separated by two hundred years.  It is April 1809 in Sidley Park, a stately home in Derbyshire, where the lady of the house, Lady Croom, is having her gardens transformed into the romantic style incorporating a grotto, hermitage and cascade, while her daughter, Thomasina, a mathematical prodigy, is being taught by her tutor, Septimus, a friend of Lord Byron. 

All around Thomasina, the adults including Ezra Chanter, a second rate poet, are preoccupied with secret desires, illicit passions and professional rivalries.

The action moves fast forward to the present day where academic adversaries Hannah and Bernard and Valentine, a descendant of Thomasina and a student of chaos theory, are piecing together clues curiously recalling those events of 1809, in particular whether a duel fought at the house was the reason Byron left England in such a hurry that year, in their quest for an increasingly elusive truth.

This play could be described as a literary detective story, an examination of the supposed collision between science and literature and classicism and romanticism, as well as the unpredictability of love and a poignant study of change and decay.  Indeed Stoppard casts his net wide but his play is both verbally and mentally stimulating with a sharp sense of humour running right through it, such as the idea a tortoise can make a good paperweight, and carnal embrace is “the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef”.

The elegant country house set by Hildegard Bechtler is marvellously evocative in suggesting both past and present which in fact converge at the end with characters dancing a waltz to the music of time.

Under David Leveaux’s assured direction, the performances all shine – Dan Stevens manages to be both charming and articulate as Septimus, Nancy Carroll exudes a certain allure as his employer, Lady Croom, Jessie Cave is engaging as her brilliant daughter, while Neil Pearson, Samantha Bond and Ed Stoppard bring a lively mix of debate and drama to the roles of the warring historians and modern day sleuths.

This indeed is a play which provides a feast of wit and wisdom.

When: Booking until 12th September

Where: Duke of York's theatre

Box Office: 0870 060 6623

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