Writer: Tom Stoppard
Director: Andrew Hilton
Reviewer: Claire Hayes
Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory (SATTF) is a company never lacking in ambition, so it’s fitting that Arcadia has been chosen as a first contemporary venture. Initially staged in 1993, Tom Stoppard’s widely-acclaimed play presents a sumptuous tapestry of ideas from Fermat’s Last Theorem to the laws of thermodynamics, from landscape design with resident ornamental hermit to the merits of Romantic poetry.
Coming together in the setting of a Derbyshire country house over two completely different time-frames, the pursuit of knowledge is inextricably woven together with sex and death. Relationships develop and wither and the later generation turns detective, uncovering clues in unlikely places as it attempts to piece together the history of Sidley Park.
The play is set entirely around a large, traditional wooden table, used by the characters of both time periods. Such a simple, naturalistic centre-piece is well suited to the Tobacco Factory’s intimate theatre in the round, a reassuring constant in the maelstrom of ideas and times that swirl about it.
“As her tutor you have a duty to keep her in ignorance,” Septimus is told of his clever 13-year-old pupil Thomasina as the play opens in 1809. From the start, it’s clear he’s failing in this duty, informing her on everything from geometry to “carnal embrace”. What’s more, his indiscreet liaisons and overt criticism of a poet and fellow house-guest are destined to bring trouble down around him.
In the present day, the descendants of the original Croom family, still resident at Sidley Park, are joined by an author and an academic. Hannah and Bernard vie to outdo each other in their interpretation of the happenings of the early 19thcentury and the unknown identity of the house’s hermit. Valentine, son of the present Lord, counsels for a more scientific approach, as vital documents that might resolve the past are missing. But his efforts fall on deaf ears with unlikely, often hilarious, assumptions being made in their stead, even bestowing murderous intent on the unseen Lord Byron. Past and present gradually intertwine until they are fused together, truth is uncovered and resonates in the present day. An apple put down on the table in one century is pickedup in the other, its leaf plucked for mathematical description and its flesh carved to feed the ever-present tortoise.
SATFF’s largely familiar company is consistently engaging. Septimus is played with great verve by Piers Wehner and Hannah Lee is a precocious and touching Thomasina. Dorothea Myer-Bennett appropriates some of the best lines and the best costumes as the acerbic Lady Croom. Polly Frame and Matthew Thomas spar magnificently as Hannah and Bernard, ably supported by Jack Wharrier’s Valentine.
Despite this play having been written over twenty years ago, its themes are so universal that it still feels relevant. Although referring to calculators, the modern day setting has been updated to include iPods and laptops, even if there’s a suspicion that the scientific theories they support must at some stage be superseded. Lighting and sound have been pared back, perhaps occasionally too much, but Andrew Hilton’s trademark direction again brings welcome clarity. SATTF’s revival reminds us why Stoppard’s fast-paced and linguistically dazzling masterpiece is so admired and, even if it is sometimes difficult to grasp Arcadia’s complexities over the course of three hours, you will certainly still be spellbound.
Runs until Saturday 3rd May 2014
Image: Graham Burke