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Stirring the jam back out of the pudding

Arcadia – Tom Stoppard

Louche Arcadians production, Aberystwyth, July 2014. Director Caroline Clarke.

The enjoyably confusing mechanism of Tom Stoppard’s overweight intellectual parody ‘Arcadia’, which recently enjoyed a four-night run at the Morlan Centre, Aberystwyth, is that it is a farce set in two different time zones: the early 19th century and the late 20th. Much of the humour derives from the usual farcical misunderstandings, sexual and linguistic misprisions, punctured grandiosities, Regency tropes and slick synchronicities, in this case between two groups of characters who can never meet in life, since they are living almost two hundred years apart.

Nevertheless they are deeply connected, both forwards and backwards across the generations, questioning the nature of time and evidence, of heredity and happenstance; while Stoppard cannot resist a broad sideswipe at the self-regarding idiocies of publication-hungry academics. A convenient fancy-dress ball draws the old and modern characters together across the divide; but even so, the evidence for the past remains allusive. Is it a ghost story? Do we ever really die, or do we just become unpublishable?

Stoppard takes as his starting point, some scanty details of the fictional Thomasina (Caryn Fflur Huws), daughter of the Earl and Countess of Croom, chatelaines of Sidley Park, Derbyshire; who starts the play as a precocious 13-year-old mathematician living on ‘upstairs rabbit pie’ under the tutelage of the philandering Septimus Hodge (Jamie Lawbuary), impulsive seducer of most of the womenfolk of the house – including the imperious Lady Croom (Denise Williams), with whom he has been seen in carnal embrace (‘The practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef’) in the gazebo.

The character of Thomasina is to some extent based on that of Ada Lovelace, whose contribution to modern mathematics and the invention of computing – she was ‘assistant’ to Thomas Babbage, who is credited with inventing the first calculating engine – has recently been recognised. Lovelace having been, coincidentally or not, the niece of the notorious Lord Byron, whose immaterial presence is felt throughout the play.

If ‘Arcadia’ has a chief flaw, it is that, at three hours, it’s about an hour too complicated. Hodge’s Latinate tutorials range across the rolling foothills of classicism, adding to much florid discourse over the putative version of Chaos theory which Thomasina crucially proposes as an alternative to Newtonian mechanics. A long and editable section has her lamenting the loss of the library at Alexandria, thanks to the folies d’amour of the ‘Egyptian noodle’, Cleopatra; while Hodge attempts to console her at length with the thought that what we have is all there is, and thus is enough to satisfy us. While, in the modern scenes, we are treated to lengthy diatribes on topics from neoclassical garden design to the fundamental scalability of everything; a laboured joke about DH Lawrence being shown by academics using computers to have written the Just William books suggests that Stoppard might himself have wielded the blue pencil to better effect. One can have only so much fun.

So, if the Louche production has a flaw, it is that director Caroline Clarke has treated the text with a reverence not normally encountered nowadays even in Shakespeare. It must be acknowledged however that this was very much a personal project, taking on and ultimately successfully conquering one of the higher peaks of modern drama, with a mostly young cast who performed nigh-on flawlessly, despite the huge number of ‘props’ and lines involved, even in the minimalist setting of the Morlan. As one of the minor (and more elderly) players, I never cease to marvel at how much inconsequential dialogue young actors can commit to memory, and recall when needed.

Without this overly intellectual foreplay – not always handled with total seriousness – one might lose some of the neurotic character of post-Enlightenment thinking, but suffer less desire for an interval. One wonders how familiar the audience might be with the poet, Robert Southey, and his tedious works; with Horace Walpole’s Gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto; Ovid, Virgil, or the Greek playwrights; with the obscure mathematics of Fermat, and how interested modern audiences generally are in the detail of these fustian themes?

For, there is nothing superficial and plot-driven here. In fact, there is barely any plot; barely even any action: all revolving around a table, in a room, that gradually accumulates books and papers; evidence, until almost nothing is known: only the dance. The drama hinges on the slender possibility that Ezra Chater (Daz O’Connell), a discountable poetaster of the Regency period, a cuckold who publishes ‘nothing at all after 1809’, might have been killed fighting a duel with Byron, an old schoolfriend of Hodge, who flees the country at about the same time as they have both, possibly or not, been guests at Sidley Park. Infuriatingly for our modern-day researchers, there is no hard evidence to support it.

Indeed, might he not have been the same Chater as the discoverer of a rare miniature dahlia, who dies in the Indies of a monkey bite, and whose widow marries Lady Croom’s brother, Captain Brice RN? It seems increasingly probable that he was. The cause of the duel is, tentatively, the honour of Mrs Chater – a character we never meet, but who maintains, according to the randy Hodge, who has given her a ‘perpendicular poke in the gazebo’: ‘such a tropical humidity as would grow orchids in her drawers in January’. (The play is filled with gardening metaphors.)

Will this momentous discovery crown the academic career of second-rate university lecturer, Bernard Nightingale (Alex Gilbey) – will, as he hopes, the Byron gang ‘get their dicks caught in their zips’ once he publishes the scandal? To this end, Nightingale arrives at Sidley Park to snout out useful material, only to find himself in competition for Lady Croom’s garden books with best-selling novelist, Hannah Jarvis (Milly Jackdaw), who has firmly installed herself in order to research the ‘Sidley Hermit’; an unfortunate-sounding character found only in a drawing that we know from Scene 1 was added by Thomasina only as a joke, to a design for her mother’s new garden – but which the squabbling academics fatally take as literal evidence.

And then, there is the eponymous Arcadia – the Sidley Park estate. To the despair of Lady Croom and (for different reasons) her bellicose brother, Captain Brice RN, who has his sights set on Mrs Chater, the gazebo is proposed to be done away with; as are the boathouse, the Chinese Bridge and the shrubbery. Landscape designer, Richard Noakes (Tom O’Malley), has arrived at Sidley to makeover the Arcadian park created only a few years earlier by Capability Brown, and replace it with a fashionably Gothic horror of wildly romantic ruins – lakes and crags – complete with a ‘fallen obelisk’ – together with a soundly constructed hermitage; although, apologetically, he has no actual hermits to offer. The Age of Enlightenment is giving way to the Romantic era, lacking ‘only vampires’, modern Hannah snorts. Noakes’ suggestion that they advertise for one meets with Wildean scorn from Lady Croom. ‘A hermit who reads the newspapers is surely not one in whom we can have confidence.’

The mystery then hinges on the identity of the hermit, who reportedly left behind thousands of pages of Kabbalistic scribblings announcing the end of the world – sadly long destroyed. Our suspicion must be that, following the premature death in a fire of the barely seventeen-year-old Thomasina, whose lover he has almost become, the disgraced Hodge has applied for the post, and spends the rest of his life trying to work through her equations; something that the latter-day scion of the Croom family, young Valentine (Patrick O’Malley), accomplishes in seconds on his laptop, in order to show Hannah the wonders of the Mandelbrot set.

It’s one of the pillars of ‘Arcadia’ that death and time blur even the sharpest insights into comic misunderstandings, but nothing can ever happen before its time. Becoming a Newton or a Lavoisier, an Einstein or even an Etonian, is only a matter of luck.

Other critics have tried concentrating on the action, the sterling performances of the amateur cast, which this reviewer admiringly acknowledges here – having been one of them – the convincing period costumes and details – even the lack of ventilation in the auditorium on a hot evening; but Stoppard challenges us to look at some passably interesting ideas. And the result is, he does make us think, I think. (Cogito, ergo cogito…). Maybe not as much as he would have hoped, since the disappointingly dull conclusion of ‘Arcadia’ is that things are as they are, pretty much, and can never be undone. You can never stir the jam back out of the rice pudding…

But it’s nice to have jam on your pudding in the first place (see, I can get down with the seaside postcard innuendos too) and Caroline Clarke’s troupe of heavily perspiring Arcadians supplied plenty of that.

1450 ww

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