Arcadia review: ‘difficult’

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It is worth noting at the outset that Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is a long play. Moreover, its lengthy running time is complimented by its dense subject matter; though quite what the exact subject is, remains unclear. All intellectual life is here, from Fermat’s last theorem to iterated algorithms – all via the symbolic nature of country gardens. Put simply, there’s a lot going on over a long time and Stoppard makes no apology for the demands he makes on the audience and those who take on the task of performing the play.

Nonetheless, the Collingwood Woodplayers have risen to the challenge for their winter 2016 production, and with directing the production, they have managed to put on an enjoyable show. Stoppard’s two juxtaposed narratives which straddle two centuries, yet both centre on Sidley Park, a large country house in Derbyshire, is rendered well by the Woodplayers. The seamless move between 1809 and the present day without any loss to the overall pace of the performance is commendable, especially given the aforementioned stamina required of the cast. Moreover, an obvious theme one picks up on is the notion of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, with characters in the past and present all facing similar social problems and searching for the same sense of intellectual purpose. Anything less than smooth scene transitions and a strong consistent pace would have seriously undermined this important facet of the play.  

Though if the endurance of the players held up well, the same cannot be said for the audience, some of whom were required to rearrange their posteriors a few times as the play meandered towards its less than obvious conclusion. Particular kudos must also go to those cast members who had to render Stoppard’s unrelenting academic monologues with all the fervour demanded by their characters. I was especially impressed with Nathan Chatelier who, according to the programme, was not recommended to take AS level Mathematics, but as the biologist Valentine, managed to provide me with a clearer understanding of what iterated algorithms are than any textbook could.

That said, good timing was not a regular feature of the night: Sophia Martinez gives a strained performance as Lady Croom, with many of her wittier lines falling flat. Much of Croom’s dialogue is imbued with a Wildean spirit which was not apparent in Martinez’s performance, though she flourished somewhat in her charmingly funny exchange with Danny Parker’s Septimus Hodge in the second half. Little can be said of the other performances, though Zoe Lawton gave a pretty convincing turn as the precocious adolescent Thomasina. Actually, no, more can be said: more must be said. Jason Hong outdid himself as the manservant Jellaby. The wit was dry and the retorts sassy; his infrequent appearances were a masterclass in good comic timing.

And without wishing to belabour timing issues too much, it cannot go unmentioned how unnecessary the music was. There are several scenes in which we hear a piano playing in another room and that’s all well and good. But the addition of curiously outdated pop music in the more profound moments of the second half was a total distraction from the tenderness on stage. Quite why we had to end with the whining tones of Gnarls Barkley after hearing some of the best dialogue in modern theatre I will never know.  

Other aspects on the production side of things were better. The set was simple, understated, and fulfilled its function as a timeless piece wonderfully well. Indeed, I would go so far as to say it was one of the best sets I have seen on a Durham stage over the whole semester. The costumes too were stylish and of their time without being too deferential to the period, which is always a complementary feature of any production.

If you go see Arcadia, and I’m reasonably well persuaded after last night that you probably should, then be prepared to deal with both the difficult ideas in the play and the difficulties Woodplayers faced giving effect to these ideas. Arcadia is a play about academia, and it sheds a humorous light on the frustrations and vicious relationships in the academic world. So a trip to Collingwood might be a welcome reprieve if end of term deadlines are getting to you. There again the particular problems in this production might cause you yet more stress. Whatever you do, don’t go hoping for a light-hearted festive romp to distract yourself from work; it’s just not there.

Photograph: Collingwood Woodplayers

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