Arcadia is a story within two periods of English history, 1809-1812 and the present day. In being so it concerns the relationship between the past and the present, order and disorder, certainty and uncertainty and has been praised as being one of the finest plays in the English language by a contemporary writer. So does this production hold up to these brilliant claims? Indeed it does. With period knobs on.
Set in a beautiful section of a historic house in Derbyshire called Sidley Park (superb design by Madeleine Girling) we meet tutor Septimus Hodge and his young teenage charge Thomasina. Thomasina is keen to understand the meaning of 'carnal embrace' which her tutor fends of by saying that “Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one's arms around a side of beef.” Theatre graduate Emily Laing plays the gauche yet fiercely intelligent Thomasina with just the right touch of awkwardness often seen in the early teens. Much later in the play we see her as a late sixteen year old and the portrayal has a marked maturity. Parth Thakerar as Septimus Hodge delivers his character with a refined rakish wit and style and movement befitting the period.
Throughout the play we slip back and forth between time periods and have the benefit of knowing that modern day 'expert' Bernard Nightingale to be completely mis-led in his apparently learnèd assumptions about the activity and proximity of Lord Byron to the characters that inhabit the house around the early 1800s. David Bark-Jones plays the often pompous Nightingale with tremendous élan and energy and innate intelligence. He is at his very best in the lecture scene which scores some of the best laughs in the play.
Overall the play is peopled by eleven characters with some doubling and great ensemble work. There is a stand out performance by Lizzi McInnerny as the redoubtable Lady Croom. McInnerny rasps and sparkles in her role and although not on stage for a huge amount of time her character portrayal is unforgettable. Through her carriage and her haughty tone she truly seems to be from another age. You wouldn't want to cross her.
Stoppard fuses Arcadia with allusion and illusion and whether we are theatrically cajoled into considering the passions of The Enlightenment, Chaos theory, Fermat's last theorem, the skills of Capability Brown, or whether there really was a real hermit living in the fabricated hermitage and who shagged who in the shrubbery it always proves a seriously comic pleasure. Arcadia runs until 15th November 2014.
Photo credit: Robert Day.