Arcadia, Duke of York's Theatre, London
Monday 08 June 2009
I haven't seen Arcadia since its first night at the National in 1993 but the play seems no less challenging, interesting or beautiful in David Leveaux's poignant revival.
The play is set both in a Derbyshire country house in 1809 and in the modern day as the unseen figure of Lord Byron hightails it to Europe on the Lisbon packet and a student of his fictional poetic contemporary bursts through to unlikely scientific knowledge before the age of the computer; 19th-century bigwigs mingle with 20th-century successors, notably a media-savvy professor and a romantic writer.
Stoppard's son, Ed Stoppard, plays the investigative Valentine Coverly, as if trying further to uncover the meaning of a play that digs deep and never stops digging. One critic described it as Enid Bagnold rewritten by Stephen Hawking: a country house mystery leaping time and charting the end of the universe. I've never resolved whether Stoppard is too clever for me or just too clever for himself, but it's nothing but joy to let his propositions roll around the theatre. Every line has a charge, every scene a question. Did Byron kill the poet he cuckolded? Is Fermat's last theorem, or the second law of aerodynamics, less important to descry than the truth of a perpendicular poke in the gazebo?
Stoppard is creating a dramatic confection from unlikely collisions in science, everyday life and societal movements. Hannah Jarvis is also writing a history of this Sidley Park estate. She's played with aggressive panache by Samantha Bond. There's Nancy Carroll, emerging as one of our finest comediennes, slicing through the historical coincidences and equivocations with the tartness of a young Lady Bracknell.
Carroll is brilliant. She's matched by Dan Stevens as the inquisitive Septimus, Jessie Cave as his genius of a pupil and Neil Pearson as the Melvyn Bragg of the Enlightenment.
Our life is short but the procession of the human comedy is long, and no one in the theatre confronts this truth with more wit, grace and perverse delight than Stoppard. I still can't decide what the play wants to be about: but an evening that gives such pure uncomplicated pleasure on so many complicated matters is a rarity and a cause for general rejoicing.
To 12 September (0870 060 6623).
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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