Review: Arcadia (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, February 7)

Aracadia. Photo: Mark Douet.
Aracadia. Photo: Mark Douet.
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A tale of two eras manages to weave together unlikely dramatic themes such as chaos theory, landscape gardening, English literature, algorithms, and thermodynamics in a captivating joint production by English Touring Theatre and Theatre Royal Brighton.

Tom Stoppard’s extraordinary 1993 play Arcadia is revived exquisitely for a national tour premiering at Brighton, giving a fascinating opportunity to see one of the writer’s most acclaimed and finely crafted works.

It’s academically and intellectually stimulating and challenging, shifting seamlessly between 1809 and the present, and while it is wordy and audiences may not wish to be so instructed in the detail of such complicated mathematical and scientific ideas, it is a play – and indeed a production – that deserves to be seen.

Director Blanche McIntyre manages to comb through the complexities to discover the humour (the historical segments are at times almost like a Wildean comedy of manners) and some emotion in the piece, though with its rich blend of themes the one that rises to the surface is that of certainty and uncertainty as characters from 1993 arrogantly make assumptions about the past based on little evidence.

Unsurprisingly for English Touring Theatre, it is once again the skills of a quality cast giving an ensemble performance that make this cerebral offering so watchable as characters from the 19th Century discuss future possibilities while those in the present try to untangle the past. The common setting is a Derbyshire stately home, where the modern academics pore over documents gathered randomly over 200 years.

Leading the honours on the acting front is Wilf Scolding as Septimus, a friend of Lord Byron, tutor to a 13-year-old genius, and with a passion for intellect and love. He conveys a deep-seated wisdom, touching lightly upon – though never ignoring – the character’s underlying tragedy, which is revealed to the audience by the present day revelations.

Making her stage debut Brighton-based Dakota Blue Richards, savouring every moment of playing to a home crowd. She is excellent as the precocious teenager learning about love and life while unravelling extraordinary truths about mathematics well before her time.

Robert Cavanah’s arrogant Byron scholar Bernard is a live wire, constructing theories on flimsy proof in contrast to others developing ideas by meticulous thought process. Flora Montgomery is splendid, too, as Hannah who prefers reason to romance, carefully researching the story of a hermit who lived in the grounds of the estate.

And in a production where every performance is beautifully judged, praise must also go to Ed MacArthur and Ria Zmitrowicz as Valentine and Chloe, and to Charlie Manton’s thoughtful and vital Gus, subtly bringing together the time frames.

Arcadia is one of those plays that needs a dissertation rather than a review, but here is a production that relishes its complexities without allowing anything to soar over the heads of the audience, a whole that dances to the music of love, life, loss, discovery and time.