The action takes place in a room on the garden front of a large country house in Derbyshire, but in two times, the present and the early years of the nineteenth century. Thomasina Coverly, a precocious thirteen year old, receives a lesson from her tutor, Septimus Hodge. The two are discussing Fermat's theorem, Newton and other matters of mathematics and physics when they are interrupted by Ezra Chater, a third-rate poet. Chater accuses Hodge of having been spied in a "carnal embrace" with Mrs. Chater, a charge Hodge makes little effort to deny. Meanwhile, Thomasina's mother, Lady Croom, is wrangling with her landscapearchitect, Richard Noakes, who wants to clutter the immaculately kept grounds with a gloomy hermitage and other gothic paraphernalia.
The second scene moves to the twentieth century. Coverly descendants still reside at the estate: young Chloe, mathematician Valentine and mute, mysterious Gus. They are also hosts to best-selling author Hannah Jarvis, there to research a history of the estate's gardens, and to literary scholar Bernard Nightingale, who intends to prove that Lord Byron, the great Romantic poet, visited Sidley Park and killed Ezra Chater in a duel.
Back in 1809, Thomasina translates a Latin passage about Cleopatra and then expresses her grief at all the knowledge lost during the burning of the Library at Alexandria. Hodge consoles her. Chater and his “second”, Captain Brice, arrive, demanding satisfaction for the stain upon Mrs. Chater's honor. Hodge agrees to meet them that afternoon for a duel with pistols. Hannah discovers one of Thomasina's notebooks, in which the girl describes an iterated algorithm. Thomasina's work in 1809 correlates to Valentine's modern-day study of grouse populations. He has the raw data, in the form of hunting logbooks, but he can't find the algorithm that defines the ebb and flow in the numbers of grouses. The logs, however, do prove that Byron did, in fact, visit the estate in 1809, a discovery that excites Bernard no end
Act Two opens with Nightingale reading his Byron lecture to Valentine, Chloe and Gus. Hannah arrives and is openly derisive, pointing out where Bernard has played fast and loose with his interpretation of history. Chloe goes out of her way to defend Bernard. Valentine also voices his objections to Bernard's unscientific methods, and Bernard rounds on him with a blistering denunciation of scientific progress. He ridicules Valentine's grouse research, causing him, Chloe and Gus to flee the room in anger, frustration and humiliation.
Nor does Hannah escape Bernard's tirade. He hands her a copy of the Byron Society Journal, which contains an article contending that the sketch Hannah used on her last book's dust jacket cannot possibly be Lord Byron and Lady Caroline Lamb, as she assumed it was. After delivering this bombshell, Bernard makes a pass at Hannah, which she declines. He then reveals that he has been sleeping with Chloe. For this, he receives a sharp slap in the face. Unperturbed, he gives Hannah a small book, The Peaks Traveller and Gazetteer, which contains a reference to Sidley Park and the mysterious hermit who lived on the property. He takes his leave. Valentine returns, and he and Hannah read that the hermit was driven insane by "Frenchified mathematick"; Hannah suspects this hermit is none other than Septimus Hodge.
The action returns to 1809 to the morning of Hodge and Chater's duel. As it turns out, no one has been shot. Mrs. Chater, however, was discovered during the night in Lord Byron's room. The poet was sent away, and the Chaters have left for the West Indies with Captain Brice, who is, in fact, Mrs. Chater's lover. Lady Croom is indignant to have found two letters from Septimus Hodge. In one, Hodge professes his love for her. The scene ends with the suggestion that he and Lady Croom will soon consummate his passion.
Valentine and Chloe read the media's sensational reaction to Bernard's lecture about Byron. ('Bonking Byron Shot Poet'). Hannah arrives, and on his laptop computer, Valentine shows her "the Coverly set" (his thesis on grouse populations, which is based on Thomasina's equations). Valentine thinks that Thomasina should be famous, but it is revealed that she died in a fire on her seventeenth birthday. Suddenly, it's simultaneously 1812.
The audience and various characters learn that Ezra Chater died of a monkey bite in the West Indies some years after he was supposed to have been shot by Byron. Bernard will be a laughing stock now that Hannah has sent a letter to that effect to The Times. It is revealed that Thomasina foresaw the implications of the second law of thermodynamics and that on the eve of her seventeenth birthday she finally declared her love for Septimus. . Finally, Gus proves Hannah's hypothesis about the identity of Sidley Park's hermit by silently bringing her Thomasina's sketch of Septimus.
Past and present merge as Septimus and Thomasina, Hannah and Gus whirl around the stage to the strains of a waltz, separated by centuries yet united by the mysteries of chaos and attraction.
Director: David Leveaux
Samantha Bond (Hannah)
And then a new production of the play is launched. You rush for your diary and your credit card, spend more than you can really afford on tickets and hug yourself in anticipation. On a steaming summer night, you cram yourself into a seat which isn’t quite big enough for your and jiggle about in your seat with excitement. And then the curtain goes up and within 30 minutes you are thinking “Jesus Christ, this is a dreary play”. And you drag home afterwards feeling depressed and disillusioned.
And so, Dear Readers, all of the above came to pass with the new production of Arcadia – Mr. Stoppard’s foray into the world of garden history. I was sooooo looking forward to this. I quote from the play in a couple of my lectures. I love the period half of it is set in. I’ve got a postcard of Rufus Sewell looking shagable and Byronic in the original production. And I haven’t got any illusions left any more. This is a DREARY play. Very little of it is about what I thought it was about. The story is typically Stoppard – overlong, pretentiously erudite and very, very, very wordy with very little action. I can’t see how any director could make it anything other than very static. Maybe, with the right cast, the dialogue crackles with learned wit as we are drawn deeper into the mystery of what happened that fateful night at Sidley Park (Lord Byron in the Gazebo with a pistol). But this isn’t the right cast, and I’m not altogether sure it’s the right play, - or the right time for a revival. Maybe I shouldn’t have been expecting so much out of it. But I left the theatre feeling robbed – of the cost of the tickets and of my enthusiasm for the play itself. I found myself getting desperately bored with all the waffle about chaos theory and Boyle’s law of thermodynamics, iterated algorithms and academic posturing. It obviously wasn’t just me – throughout the first half, gales of laughter drifted up from the stalls while, up in the circle, there was a stony silence. Him Indoors theorised that it was because the “posh people in the stalls got more of the academic jokes” (as if having the wherewithal for expensive tickets equals educational ability) – I maintain it was because the dialogue was far more audible closer to the stage; there did seem to be an awful lot of muttering going on, or perhaps we were all rather confused by the odd acoustics. Certainly the number of people in the circle dropped by 50% during the interval (which at least made it less cramped, but no less unpleasantly hot, about more of which anon).
The Regency costumes were generally badly researched – the designer went for “the obvious” rather than “the correct”. There wasn’t a single pair of correctly period shoes on the entire stage, and hairstyles were abysmally modern. Correct me if I’m wrong (and I’m sure someone will because I’m sure all my Readers are clever people and know all sorts of stuff) but I don’t think the Alice Band was a staple of Regency hairdressing,. Jessie Cave, as Thomasina, wore one over long hair which was hanging down straight, and this really looked completely wrong. The modern-day costumes were an odd blend of 80s, 90s and Noughties.
There were some OK performances, but none, I think, that came anywhere near what those in the original performances must have been (I didn’t see it, so admit that this is pure supposition). But Sarah Bond just ain’t in the same league as Felicity Kendall, nor does Neil Pearson have the academic weight or dry wit of Bill Nighy. However much I may refute Him Indoors’ scathing dismissal of Mr. Pearson as merely “Women’s Television Totty”, I don’t think he is right for the part of Bernard Nightingale. Dan Stevens made a good job of the role of Septimus but, you know, gazing at my postcard of Rufus Sewell, can’t help but think the latter would have been more Broodingly Byronic. Nancy Carroll seemed to take a good long while to get to grips with the role of Lady Croom and her final scenes were very well done, but I kept imagining Harriet Walter in the original production and thinking……hmmmmm. Ed Stoppard, aside from the obvious charges of nepotism which are undoubtedly going to be levelled at him (and with good reason), did a good job but, you know, Sam West played that part…..OK, OK, I have to stop this business of comparing everyone on stage with those that were in a production I never saw, but I just can’t help thinking that they would have done it better….
On the subject of it being extremely hot in the theatre, those of you who are connoisseurs of the absurdities of modern life will no doubt enjoy this extract from an exchange during the interval with a staff member who opened the fire exit doors to let some fresh air in. Him Indoors showed a surprising turn of speed and managed to nip past and onto the fire escape, prompting the response “You can’t go out on the fire escape because its against Health and Safety Regulations”. The Devil whispered in my ear and I asked whether this would be the case during a fire? I got a sour look in exchange. The Theatre Manager then walked past and went on to the fire escape. Desperately anxious to prevent a staff member breaking their own Health and Safety Regulations and leaving themselves open to possible litigation should there be an accident , I told him “You can’t go onto the Fire Escape, its against Health and Safety……” Two sour looks…… and a “tick” for today. (another arrow in the side of pompous officialdom!).