THEATRE / Bright sparks fly when art and science collide

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The Independent Culture
COMING FROM an author whose plays resist synopsis and who has confessed himself incapable of inventing plots, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia has a reassuringly straightforward story to tell. It concerns the events leading up to Lord Byron's mysterious departure for Lisbon in 1809: before which, according to Stoppard, the 21-year-old poet had visited the Croom family at their Derbyshire country house (Sidley Park), where his fellow guests included a vanity poet, Ezra Chater, and his wife, who shortly became known in the household for her 'state of tropical humidity as would grow orchids in her drawers in January'. The speaker is Byron's schoolfriend Septimus Hodge (tutor to the family's daughter), who has enjoyed Mrs C in the gazebo; as Byron then does in his bedroom - only to be detected and ordered off the premises by the outraged mistress of the house, whose brother, also panting after the 'Chater harlot', spirits her off to the Indies with her complaisant husband in tow.

This, however, falls somewhat short of summarising the play, as these events all happen off-stage and the two main characters do not appear at all. In their place, Stoppard develops a dazzlingly elaborate comedy of ideas from literary history, Chaos theory maths, and landscape gardening, while spinning an intricate web of correspondences between the house party of 1809 and a parallel group who meet to make sense of it 180 years later. Good news: after the sterile ingenuity of Hapgood five years ago, this is a return to the Stoppard of Jumpers and Travesties, an artist in speculative connections, fired equally by sublime abstraction and human absurdity, who can hand you the key to the universe while laying out the next banana skin.

Arcadia is a piece made up of binary oppositions - classic versus romantic, Newtonian versus quantum physics, dispassionate inquiry versus the lust for fame. What the play is not saying is that all these pairs match up. It works rather through affinities and serendipity, so that if a modern character echoes a line from his Regency counterpart, or if a reference to the action of bodies in heat applies equally to the second law of thermodynamics and to the insatiability of Mrs Chater, this comes as a lovely surprise rather than a plonking deterministic certainty. In this sense, the form of the play mirrors its ideas. Just as the neat walks of Sidley Park are giving way to overgrown grottoes and the mechanistic to an unpredictable universe, so Stoppard delivers the theatrical equivalent of a neo-Gothic landscape - an irregular and unforeseen succession of illuminating vistas.

Although he never appears, Byron occupies the crucial role. In 1809 he had written his Popean satire 'English Bards and Scotch Reviewers', but not yet 'Childe Harold' - so his sojourn with the Crooms locates the action in a breathing space between classicism and the Romantic movement. Hodge's pupil Thomasina is also a Byronic figure: like

Byron's future daughter Ada (who foresaw the computer), a mathematical prodigy who stumbles on the prophetic Chaos theory equation which forms the play's main line of thought. Even as explained in words of one syllable, I fail to grasp it. But that is no obstacle to its comic impact. Spreading from paper and pencil to computer print-outs, the 'mathematics of the natural world' strikes increasingly brilliant sparks from the surrounding company of egoistic innumerates, as they see their social conventions flouted, and their scholarly reputations going down the drain.

The whole show takes place in a park-facing rotunda (by Mark Thompson), furnished only with a book-littered table that remains unaltered as the action switches between past and present. Trevor Nunn directs the 1809 scenes with maximum attention to Regency style, holding Romantic chaos at bay in every detail from the seigneurial decorum of Allan Mitchell's butler to the aspirated Jane Austen locutions of Harriet Walter's Lady Croom. Any indelicacy or insult can be delivered with unruffled courtesy. Even the plain- speaking tutorials between Rufus Sewell's Hodge and Emma Fielding's bouncy Thomasina keep to the style, while sometimes parodying it. (If a ruined castle is picturesque, why not a ruined girl?)

In the modern scenes, the linguistic gloves are off for a bare- knuckle fight between art and science. On one side, Valentine, the mathematician (Samuel West); on the other, two literary historians - Hannah, a freelance scholar, and Bernard, a university don. All three are following up the Byron story from their separate positions; but the action polarises into a farcical combat between the rival scholars. This is fine for Bill Nighy, who seizes the chance to build Bernard into a monster of reckless vanity who rushes into print with the immediately demolished theory of a Byron-Chater duel. It is not so good for Felicity Kendal as Hannah, whose scrupulous professionalism does nothing to conceal a feminist chip a mile high coupled with the determination to have Bernard publicly grovelling at her feet. In this she succeeds; but at the cost of sympathy and laughter. I have no other complaints against this glorious show; once again, there is a playwright in our midst.

In view of its emotionally loaded subject, Diane Samuels's Kindertransport is a remarkably tough-minded piece of work. Based on first-hand accounts of Jewish children evacuated to Britain before the war, the play presents the fictitious case of Eva, who exchanges Hamburg for Manchester, and then rejects the mother who comes to claim her after surviving wartime Dachau. The story unfolds as the disclosure of a guilty secret, with the vulnerable young Eva sharing the stage with her coldly unmaternal middle-aged self. This sometimes grounds the play in domestic

harangues; nor do I understand how the fable of the Rat-catcher leading children to an abyss applies to the exile that brought them physical safety. What does come through is the uncomfortable thought that being sent to a safe place felt like betrayal. Samuels's voice carries on large issues; also on small - as where Eva (Sarah Shanson) reels out of a Belsen newsreel, and then goes back to see the main feature; after all, she has bought a ticket.

No such tragic candour distinguishes the Israeli Tmu-Na company's Real Time, a bar-room rhapsody to the Yom Kippur war. Wisps of self-pitying dialogue and frenziedly undisciplined movement combine to show the company as helpless victims. In Nazi Germany, perhaps; but in Israel?

'Arcadia', Lyttelton, 071-928 2252. 'Kindertransport', Cockpit, 071-402 5081. 'Real Time', Lyric Studio, Hammersmith, 081-741 2311.

(Photograph omitted)