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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
ARCADIA
at the Duke of York's

A NATURAL AFFECTION
By MATT WOLF

  Sam Cox as Jellaby/Ph: Tristram Kenton

In an ideal world - which will never exist given that, as two of this play's characters remind us, "we're all doomed" - we would have Arcadia on constant view, where Tom Stoppard's 1993 masterwork could remind us time and again of the genuinely civilizing impulses of the theater at its best to entertain, educate, and, most decisively with this gorgeous play, exalt. But at least now if not forever, we have David Leveaux's ravishing new production of a play that I thought had been definitively served up the first time round at the National Theatre, under the eye of Trevor Nunn. Instead,one returns afresh to find the singular charge of Arcadia undiminished, even if its variously dizzying - and wounding - component parts this time work differently on their way toward creating a rapture-inducing whole.  

At the Lyttelton, on the splendors of a Mark Thompson set suggesting a Derbyshire stately home with grounds stretching into infinity, one was immediately taken up by the wickedly funny, incipiently sexual, ultimately mournful mating dance between the Cambridge-educated tutor Septimus Hodge and his brilliant teenage protegee, Thomasina Coverly, the latter a child/woman whom we first meet two months shy of her 14th birthday and who by play's end is a heartbeat away from turning 17: Rufus Sewell and Emma Fielding were pretty well definitive in those parts.  

Dan Stevens  and newcomer Jessie Cave  do beautifully at the Duke of York's by the same roles, as well, and it's not Stevens's fault that very few people possess the slightly mad gleam in their eye that made Sewell and Septimus a career-making match, given the fate of an apparently sociable character who becomes known a century on for his seclusion. But as if to up the stakes in a precisely ordered text one of whose themes is the role in life (and death) of disorder and chance, Arcadia finally has the modern-day players to do justice to the competing demands of a script that acts as literary detective story, academic satire, and meditation on mortality in turn - and sometimes all at once.  

To a degree that I never saw in any of that first Arcadia's numerous cast changes once it transferred to the West End, nor in the underinflected Lincoln Center Theater premiere of the same play with an American cast, Neal Pearson, Samantha Bond, and a young actor with a familiar surname -Ed Stoppard  - up the emotional ante in a contemporary rondelay of scientific pursuit, flared tempers, and missed or misplaced affections. If the Sidley Park story in 1809 is one of a dazzlingly precocious teenager's awakening into adulthood, so that her libido can begin to catch up with her intellect, the subsequent goings-on two centuries later involve a 30something author, Bond's deliciously played Hannah, who has to be led back into that realm of experience. The girl is keen to dance- the woman we separately encounter around the same table says she won't.  

Of course, there's infinitely more to this play than just a contrasting study in eros, though it's Stoppard's abiding genius to feature desire as the motor for even the more abstruse musings on the Picturesque, the second law of thermodynamics and the correct way to pronounce the word  "ha-ha." As if to refute in a single masterstroke the long-standing charge against this dramatist that he's all head and no heart, Arcadia features sex as the attraction, per Hannah, that "Newton left out" and that a playwright at the virtuosic peak of his powers knows enough to include in abundance.

There's something sweetly touching and immediate about the bespectacled, plumpish Cave and Thomasina's amorous quest, the actress the physical opposite of Fielding's astounding initial occupancy of this same role. But whereas Harriet Walter's Lady Croom in the 1990s seemed trapped inside a Wildean pastiche,Nancy Carroll  in the same role is sternly funny as both a romantic devotee of Lord Byron - the play's unseen celebrity pivot- and the character who gets to cite the play's title: a choice of name that by evening's close has come to seem as grimly ironic as Hannah's passing reference to "the decline from thinking to feeling," a shift that many in the audience might see as a gain in Stoppard's own authorial landscape rather than a loss.  

The entire cast is at the top of their game, as befits their collective appreciation of a play that had Instant Classic written across it in 1993 and now looks set to endure well beyond us, just as Thomasina's legacy shines well beyond her own, cruelly foreshortened life. Pearson is immediately funny and likable as a shouty scholar seemingly defined by the word "sorry," and Lucy Griffith's  Chloe Coverly in the contemporary scenes captures exactly the charismatically blithe insouciance of the aristo set in modern dress. As for Stoppard fils? It must be odd in a way to be a jobbing actor, however capable, speaking language of such an order scripted by your own father. In fact, Ed Stoppard brings to the task a ready empathy with the play's most quietly shattering role - for a work concerned with accuracy down to the last minutiae it seems a shock that he is also the one to argue the basic triviality of the need to know - that at one point left me distinctly teary-eyed. His mischievous wit keeps events spinning, too.

Could it be that one is moved by a play that itself shifts between centuries here passing on a cultural bequest of its own between its author and his own actor/son? Or maybe it's just because writing as rich as Arcadia brings out the best - as it has done here - in everyone involved. "Et in Arcadia ego," indeed, and so you should be, too.  

 


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