The detritus on a table slowly builds up, the focal point of one of the cleverest plays ever written. A young child (Thomasina, played by Tallulah Vaughan) ponders on the nature of entropy, on life and atoms, all through the metaphor of rice pudding. “You cannot stir things apart” she says, with the kind of clever whimsical and yet sharp humour that Stoppard strews throughout Arcadia.
Arcadia is Stoppard’s best known work, and one that has a reputation of being an Everest-like task for any production company. The lines are fast, characters poignant and the plot thickens so rapidly that were it any other play you might find yourself bewildered, inception-like meta twists running through the play such that even the directors, when this previewer caught up with them admitted that they were still finding new nuances in the script despite having been working with the cast for over two terms, and probably thinking on it for far longer. With all that being said, one of the key complaints about Stoppard’s play is that it is too clever, too fast-paced for many audiences to fully grasp. Putting it in front of an Oxford audience then will be an interesting challenge; discerning viewers that we are I will find it most intriguing to see what the popular reception of this play is.
The preview for this play consisted of two opening scenes, one set in the Arcadia of 1809, with characters played to full Victorian-esque grandiosement. The bumbling Mr Chater, played with plummy rich-vowelled aplomb by Fred Wienand was highly amusing when cast in contrast with the pithier Septimus (Rory Grant), who was quite certainly in my eyes the most intricately developed acting performance of the 1809 cast. It is clear that the cast have spent a long time rehearsing together; I couldn’t fault the comedic delivery of any lines within the production, the scene about garden construction being particularly amusing. Thomasina leaves us with witticisms that contain a note of melancholy, perhaps hinting to later developments in the plot. She asks at what point ‘How is a ruined child different to a ruined castle?’ The adults are all stumped. One note I would have for the performers of the 1809 scene is to not fall too far into the well-bred lushness or screechily-clipped vowels of their characters; whilst undoubtedly amusing, there is both the issue of sound in the acoustically odd space of the O’Reilly to consider and additionally the issue with the tone and timbre of the modern piece that should be considered.
It is, of course, very difficult to pull off a switch between different time zones, different personality types and allow enough similarity that the audience doesn’t feel entirely displaced in watching the play as a continuous whole whilst also allowing for the obvious necessity to contrast the then from the now. Whilst I’m sure in the actual production this will flow seamlessly from scene to scene I must admit that I was at first taken aback by the change in pace between the 1809 setting and the modern setting. Whilst I am sympathetic to the need to establish difference, nonetheless I do believe it is important to not think that as we begin the second scene we are watching a different play entirely.
However, the pacing and comedic elements of the more slow-burn modern scene soon began to shine through, and really come into their own. The interaction between the rambunctiously puppy-like and yet mildly patronising Nightingale (Oliver Skan) and Hannah (Imo Reeve-Tucker), the apathetic, droll resident academic was very entertaining to watch, played off with a keen sense of modern British awkwardness. There were some small issues with the script but once again I have no doubt that come opening night these issues will be resolved.
In sitting down with the directors after the preview I had to sit back for a moment and admire the two director’s passions and strength of belief bordering on religious fervour about Arcadia. It is undoubtedly a labour of love, and that love shone through in their answers to my question, and the evident care and respect with which they have treated both the script and this production. When questioned about how well they understood the play, a glance was exchanged and one said ‘ I think that if we haven’t understood it by now, it’s because Stoppard wanted ambiguity’; given that they dryly began by saying ‘Has anyone ever read this play as many times as we have? I doubt it’ I am inclined to agree with their interpretation. It is clear that from their notions on how to portray entropy to their inspiration as to how to add more clarity to the confused chronology of the play they have thought of nearly everything. Such a thoughtful and thought-provoking play is always worth a watch, and given that what I saw of it was shaping up to be one of the best productions in Oxford this year, there really is no excuse to not go and see Arcadia.