Tom Stoppard’s work is a popular choice for university students for the way it balances absurdity and humour with social and cultural criticism. It’s something you can invite your tutorial group and your parents to! Arcadia is perhaps less popular than The Real Inspector Hound or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but it’s equally fun in the overlapping intrigues of literature, sex, and an illusive hermit.
The Coverly family are redesigning their garden at Sidley Park to include an on-trend hermitage. Their daughter, Thomasina (Georgia McGinness), is also coming of age, expanding her mathematic genius and falling in love with her tutor, Mr Hodge (Justin Westlake), who is simultaneously sleeping with every available wife on the estate. In the same home some 200 years later, rival Romantic academics, Hannah Jarvis (Emily Suine) and Bernard Nightingale (Michael Mulvenna), may have stumbled across a Lord Byron connection never before seen. It’s characteristically silly, intertwined, and dubious as characters misunderstand each other, sometimes across hundreds of years.
What makes Stoppard’s work such a joy to read and watch is just how much he managed to cram in; every viewing brings something new to the surface because the pacing is too quick to catch it all at once. It requires a level of comic timing that the majority of this production lacked. Particularly in the choice to use black-out scene transitions without any music for either interest or timing, much of the script was unnecessarily drawn out and slowed down. There are also a lot of scenes in this work with long diatribes about science and mathematics that satirise the elitism of knowledge which are more interesting to watch as a condescending conversation, rather than a lecture. With snappier pacing, the overlaps and collisions hold more tension and speed towards the climax more thrillingly.
Considering the frequency with which the women in this text are spoken down to, they really held their own. McGinnis is light and so very charming as the Coverly daughter, humble in her mathematic comprehension and giddy with her childhood dreams. Her enthusiasm lends a sweetness to her relationship with Mr Hodge that wins audiences over in the end. Her modern parallel, Jarvis, also knows how to poke holes in her male counterpart’s pretensions. Suine has an ease on stage that grounds the scenes when conversation gets a bit too cerebral. Both women inhabited their characters such that they seemed much more complete than caricature, no matter how simple their male peers attempted to paint them.
Set design by Tanwee Shrestha and costuming by Amy Lane were simple and conveyed quick change of century easily. Similarly, lighting design employed conventional warm-washes with added interest after dark. Sound design left a little to be desired in terms of creating a cohesive soundscape for the production and consistency throughout scenes that required diegetic sound.
Arcadia points to the absurdity of academia and our often overbearing need to pin down patterns in literature and nature. And when the existence of an answer is as reliable as a sketch of a hermit, does it even matter?
Arcadia is running at the Fusebox Theatre at the Factory Theatre from August 8th – 11th.