Arcadia: a Play on Words, Time, Knowledge, Literature, Science, and Death
‘disorder out of disorder into disorder until [it] is complete, unchanging and unchangeable’ Septimus Hodge, Arcadia, p. 5
One of the finest contemporary playwrights of the 20th century, Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Travesties) never manages to disappoint. The Sydney Theatre Company’s production of the utterly clever and thoroughly enjoyable, Arcadia directed by Richard Cottrell (Travesties 2009) is sure to amuse, confuse, enlighten and delight with a cast that includes Ryan Corr (Packed to the Rafters), as the dashing Septimus Hodge, Georgia Flood (ANZAC Girls) as Thomasina, and Andrea Demetriades (Pygmalion) as historian, Hannah Jarvis.
Clever and amusing, Arcadia is littered with references to the passage of time, the chaos theory, the iterated method, the second law of thermodynamics, topological mixing, Romanticism, and the Enlightenment. The continuous playful, pertinent, or downright ridiculous repartee between all involved, and the constant the play on words, keeps the science light and amusing. Under Richard Cottrell’s direction, all but a few of the cast manage to shine, delivering the lines with wit, flair, and intrigue.
The past and present intertwine in Arcadia, through two parallel stories, each set almost two centuries apart, in the same stately English manor, Sidley Park. The play opens in 1809, with precocious Thomasina Cloverley, clever beyond her years and time, and her witty tutor Septimus Hodge seated on either sides of an elongated table engaged in an amusing repartee covering a wide range of topics from carnal embrace, poetry, Fermat’s Last Theorem, and theoretically, topological mixing. Unfortunately, the offended cuckold, Erza Chater (Glenn Hazeldine), interrupts Thomasina’s lesson. Carnal embrace and a “perpendicular poke” with a married woman in the gazebo quickly place Hodge in danger of a deathly duel.
However, the present, intrudes the period narrative, blatantly ignoring the passage of time, when a popular historian, Hannah Jarvis and a pompous English Don, Bernard Nightingale (Josh McConville) come to present day Sidley Park. Both are in search of a connection between the estate’s past and a topic deemed worthy of academic research and publication.
Thomasina and Septimus remain close to the audience’s heart. The play opens, constantly returns to, and closes with them. The parallel story in the present intertwines itself around their actions, making the audience’s insight into their future all the more painful.
Under the direction of Richard Cottrell once again, set designer, Michael Scott-Mitchell, and costume designer, Julie Lynch deftly design the unthinkable. Deliberately self-conscious, the set of Arcadia draws the audience’s attention to temporal reality of the actual play, rather than the dramas that unfold upon its stage. The table dominates the set, both in the past and the present. At first glance, it appears simple, with an understated elegance. Yet as with every line in the play, it has a complex, dual purpose. It gathers props from the past and the present, until, the two stories, centuries apart, intertwine, with the characters literally dancing in time. As for the costumes, they enable us to at first, separate and then join the parallel stories with the period costumes of the early 19th century characters finally side by side those of the present day in dress up.
Once again, Tom Stoppard has crafted a play that is too clever for words. The initial title of the play was Et in Arcadia, ego, a direct reference to the painting by Nicolas Poussin and thereby, an illusion to the presence of death even in a paradise.
While, the reference is lost in the shorter, crowd-pleasing title, Arcadia, the line remains in the play, accompanied by a poignant acknowledgement of its true meaning. Moreover, the audience must learn about the final tragedy woven into this very well crafted comedy, heartbreakingly early, from Hannah’s discoveries into Sidley Park’s past.
Zalehah Turner is a Sydney based poet currently completing her Bachelor of Arts in Communications majoring in writing and cultural studies at the University of Technology, Sydney. Zalehah is an Associate Editor of Rochford Street Review. https://rochfordstreetreview.com/2016/02/09/welcome-zalehah-turner-rochford-street-review-associate-editor/
Arcadia by Tom Stoppard presented by the Sydney Theatre Company runs from 8 February to 2 April at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House. Tickets can be purchased from the box office: 02 0250 1777 or online at https://www.sydneytheatre.com.au/whats-on/how-to-book