Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard

This is one of my all-time favourite plays to read. I ran across a copy at my grandparents’ house when I was a teenager and devoured it. I don’t know whether it was the Derbyshire connection or the math or the Byron (even though I hate Byron) or just the sheer genius that is Tom Stoppard, but I adored it from the minute I read it.

And I got to see it, this weekend, in London, in a production that has gotten nothing but good reviews. It deserves every one of them. The play is, of course, amazing, and the cast was incredible. There were quite a few people who are not huge stars or big names, but more “Oh, yeah, the guy from the thing!” type actors. Which is good because then you can focus on the show itself and not necessarily on being starstruck at seeing Matt Damon or Brendan Fraser or Alan Rickman or Charlton Heston or whoever you’re seeing. The only ‘weak’ point in the cast was the girl who played Thomasina [Jessie Cave, who was in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince] and it’s hard to tell whether it was her or the character that bothered me. She wasn’t as natural as the other actors, but then her character is 13 for most of the play so she may not have needed to be. Other people-I-recognized in the cast included Lucy Griffiths (Maid Marian in the recent Robin Hood series), Hugh Mitchell (Colin Creevey in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), and Neil Pearson (Richard Finch in the Bridget Jones movies). Ed Stoppard, who played Valentine, I’d heard of (since he’s Tom Stoppard’s son, he’s gotten a bit of press for this play) but hadn’t seen in anything. He was fantastic – I understood Valentine as a character much more because of his performance.

It’s hard to explain what a Stoppard play is about. The people sitting next to me asked for a plot synopsis, and I told them that it was almost impossible to synopsize a Stoppard play, especially one that jumps time the way that Arcadia does. (Here is Wikipedia’s summary, though, if you’re interested.) It’s about math and science, literature, and sex. It’s about chaos theory, and how historically-based literary criticism is ultimately wrong. It is a working definition of dramatic irony, and – especially in a performance like this one – proof that the Second Law of Thermodynamics does not apply to literature. This is a play where the heat just keeps building and building, and it never comes anywhere near room temperature. It’s the type of play that makes higher-level math understandable, at least to me. It’s the type of play that makes me wish I’d studied it (math) more. It’s the type of play that proves how a good writer can be educational and interdisciplinary without being pedantic.

It is a play that combines ideas and characters. Valentine wouldn’t be as interesting if he weren’t passionate about math as he is, and if he weren’t so conflicted about the impossibility of Thomasina’s work. Bernard wouldn’t be interesting at all if he weren’t so passionate about Byron and his ‘discovery’. And Septimus….I was in love with Septimus after reading the play, but even more so now that I’ve seen him brought to life [especially by Dan Stevens, who is now on my ‘Watch him in anything he does’ list]. He’s especially good in the last scene, with Thomasina: he knows that it’s wrong, he knows he shouldn’t give in, and yet he can’t stop himself. It’s heartbreaking, and you could see the struggle, and the inevitability, in his performance.

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