first night


Stoppard the World, I Want to Get Off
Donnchadh O'Connail attempts to visit Arcadia.

(Arcadia – Hild Bede Theatre Company, Caedmon Hall, 26/11/2010)


            So, is it an idyllic experience, this Arcadia? Perhaps we should think of it as a curate’s Eden: perfect in parts. There is ingenious plotting and comic brio, but also a lack of pace and at times some unclear delivery. To extend one of the writer’s conceits, the pudding has some lovely jam and rice, but it has not been fully stirred.

            And, it must be said, the writer has over-egged it. The impression one has on leaving the theatre is how awfully clever this Tom Stoppard fellow is, and how awfully keen he is to impress this fact upon us. Like an undergraduate let loose on the first formative of term, he crams in references to entropy, classical and Romantic styles of thought and expression, women and the canon, nonlinear algebra, science and literature, and quite possibly much else besides. To me this cleverness flourished like a weed; many shoots of dramatic action and buds of character development were choked by speeches, sometimes witty (Valentine’s summarising the second law of thermodynamics by suggesting that ‘we’re all going to wind up at room temperature’) but often merely cute, in the punchable fashion of much popular science. One may be under the impression that this is a play which takes on serious scientific and cultural themes. I have my doubts; I suspect that as a piece of dramatic art, it scarcely engages with them at all, in that little which happens seems to embody or enact these concepts in anything but a superficial manner. Put another way: I have nothing against ideas in plays, just as long as they are kept away from the mouths of the characters.

            Literary gripes aside, there were performances to admire. Whatever about being a playwright of ideas, Stoppard is a superb writer of comedy, scattering exquisite epigrams in every scene. These were avidly snapped up by Rory Quinn, playing Bernard, the ambitious and arrogant academic (is there any other kind, I hear you ask). His drive and enthusiasm never inflated into caricature, and he grew into the role as his character acquires momentum. Matching him were Michael Hartley, crisp of diction, camp of inflection, light-footed and heavy-lidded, and Sophia Harrop, whose presence and timing commanded the stage each time she appeared.

            It is notable that these were three of the most straightforwardly comic roles in the play. Other members of the cast laboured under heavier burdens. I felt Rachel Nwokoro (Hannah, Bernard’s sometime rival and collaborator) struggled to settle into her role. She didn’t successfully convey an initial sense of authority, and at times I was unsure what she was doing in a particular scene: whether she was genuinely irritated or expressing a mannerism, for example. Something similar could be said of Will Hannam’s Chater. I felt each of these actors needed a more precise sense of what was happening to their character at each moment. In fairness, the characters each was playing may well be very different to their own experiences. By way of contrast, consider how easily Nicholas Whitworth slipped into the role of Valentine. I have no idea if Whitworth is himself a slightly dim aristocrat, but being a Durham student he will have had the opportunity to observe some of this species at close quarters; at any rate, he had the gangly movements and gauche manner down to a tee.

            Falling somewhere between these two stools were the leads.  Morton Jacobsen had an impressive opening, displaying smoothness and a nice way with comic understatement, but I felt he did not subsequently bring out the more interesting facets of Septimus, in particular the mixture of unease, attentiveness and attraction he feels towards his tutee Thomasina. As the latter, Harriet Mallinson was childlike without being irritating, and the passage of three years was marked in her performance. However, I felt the poignancy which should touch if not envelop her later scenes with Jacobsen was missing. We know what is about to befall them, but we do not feel it, and as a result the ending feels muted rather than gently fading.

            So much for the ingredients, but what of the pudding? To my mind, John Muething had a clear vision for the play, and some good ideas about how the two periods it covers (half the action is set in the early nineteenth century, half in the late twentieth or early twenty-first) should be brought together. The movement from one time to the next was usually swift and assured, with the costumes and props allowed to do most of the work. The set (two tables standing end-to-end, which acquire an array of props from both time-periods as the play progresses) was appropriately simple. As against that, I felt the blocking was rather fussy, with a great deal of movement to no apparent purpose, adding energy to the exchanges but not in such a way as to bring them to the boil. There were also aspects of the staging which perhaps needed more rehearsal, chief among them being the high number of stumbles, over an admittedly dense and difficult text. In addition, many lines were delivered too fast or too quietly to be heard properly (in some cases, this was exacerbated by the excessive use of music). And crucially for a comic production, I felt the exchanges lacked pace at key moments; for example, the scenes where characters from the two time-periods appear together dragged, lacking the seamless interchange needed to realise this coup de theatre.

As a result, I do not think it could not be said that watching this production will land one in Arcadia. Nevertheless, I could think of worse things to do before winding up at room temperature.


27 November 2010

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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