By Alison Gamble
‘Different’ is certainly one way to describe Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, both in terms of its plot, and in its sharp contrast from other productions staged by the Collingwood Woodplayers in recent years. Director Alice Chambers promises a tantalising blend of subjects and themes, with ‘all disciplines’ covered – everything from ‘literature’ to ‘mathematics and grouse’ can be found in the play, presenting a little something for everyone in Durham.
Intriguingly, Arcadia’s setting is split between two time periods, with the narrative taking place in both 1809-1812, and in the present day. Set within an English country house, the play is divided between the lives of its original occupants, and the activities of two modern scholars, who come to investigate them. According to the production team, Stoppard’s style gives the play a ‘cyclical’ feel, as parallels and similarities develop between the lives of the characters, despite their differing time periods. Chambers highlights how the play is particularly captivating because of the ‘mirroring’ between its characters; ‘questions that are asked in the past are answered in the present,’ and vice versa, leading to conversations and debates across periods. Such a dynamic is clearly one of the reasons why the Woodplayers have chosen to stage Arcadia, but assistant director Jess Green adds that Arcadia’s different time periods will hopefully ‘help attract people as well, because it’s like two plays happening at once, with the more traditional side of things and then you’ve got the modern […] you can relate to both.’
If anything, Arcadia appears to be focused on the ‘pursuit of knowledge,’ a topic that producer Catherine Jones claims makes it an appropriate choice for Durham students. But the play is also centred around a range of conflicts; between the past and the present, order and disorder, emotions and rationality. Nathan Chatelier, who plays the mathematician Valentine, adds that Arcadia enacts ‘the tension between the arts and the humanities’ that can always be felt in Durham, with the endless debate into ‘whose subject is better?’ playing out onstage. But Chatelier also comments that ‘in sort of contrasting the tensions between them, and how they resolve each other,’ Stoppard shows that the subjects ‘are fundamentally a component of each other,’ which is a promising message for any student.
Nevertheless, Stoppard’s hefty dialogue comes with its own difficulties. Zoe Lawton, who plays Thomasina, notes that ‘a lot of googling, a lot of sparknotes,’ was required to get through early rehearsals. Famous for its lengthy speeches, Arcadia is also presenting its actors with a range of challenges when it comes to their characters; whether it is because they have to pretend to enjoy mathematics, or in Lawton’s case, because they are playing a character at the vastly different ages of thirteen and sixteen. Danny Parker quips that getting into character as the ‘sexual predator’ Septimus has been interesting, but a lot of fun. He hopes to bring a bit more depth to his character, and that the audience will see him as ‘exceptionally talented’ rather than simply perverse.
Staging appears to be something the production team are keeping deliberately minimal, as Jess Green notes that the ‘passing of time’ can create a sense of ‘confusion’ in the script and from an audience’s perspective. The stage will mainly consist of a table, which the characters all interact with in some way, creating a sense of constancy. Green adds that by the ending, the table has ‘accumulated’ a range of props and possessions, and in doing so ‘becomes this whole object of what has happened and what has been.’ Catherine Jones suggests that such a constant ‘sets up the contrast well,’ with the characters changing but the place remaining unchanged – a poignant image of mortality, and the passing of time.
Although it could be argued that Arcadia is a great choice for Durham students because, as Lawton jokes, ‘it’s an intelligent play’ and ‘we’re all smart here.’ I, on the other hand, am inclined to agree with Catherine Jones when she argues that Arcadia can be enjoyed on ‘more than one basic surface level,’ as it has a lot to offer an audience, from humour to a ‘deeper, meaningful level amongst the different time periods.’ This production has something unique to offer audiences, whether that is simply because of the importance it puts on mathematics, or because of the appearance of an apparently ‘amazing’ tortoise. Arcadia’s offering is certainly different, and that makes it all the more intriguing, a perfect choice for an evening of theatrical entertainment this term.