Left – Whitney Richards, Scott Sheridan. Cover – Benj D'Addario, Brendan Hanson, Scott Sheridan. Images – Gary Marsh & Daniela Fego.
Hailed as the greatest play by the greatest living playwright of our age, the Black Swan production of Arcadia by Tom Stoppard enjoyed a near sold out season at the State Theatre Centre in Northbridge.
The brilliance of the play is undisputed. The intelligence of the writing is quite staggering, and the complexity of the subject matter could keep a group of scholars in conversation long into the night. But what does this mean for the average theatregoer?
One might wonder has Stoppard made it over analytical and inaccessible. Is it simply too theoretical to take in? My answer is no, even if you filter out the things you don't immediately understand, the through line of the play is clear enough to follow, and the plot is character driven (just enough) so that we can engage and empathise with the various relationships. It would take someone with an extraordinary mind to fully grasp the hypotheses and concepts bandied about by the high flying characters in this play, therefore most people may need to just process what they are able to, ignore any details that might confuse them and enjoy the big picture, because even the very broad brush strokes of this play are quite beautiful.
While the action is set always in one room, the grand country home, Sidley Park, plays host to the learned and wealthy residents and guests of two separate time periods, 1809 to 1812, and the present day. From 1809 to 1812, the house is occupied by Lady Croom and her daughter, the yet to be discovered genius, Thomasina Coverly. Among a number of visitors (including Lord Byron) and employees is Thomasina's tutor, Septimus Hodge.
The flowery language and dignified mannerisms of that time are juxtaposed with the abrupt interactions between the characters of the present day. Along with the residents of the home, writer Hannah Jarvis is there to investigate the mysterious occupant of the hermitage on the grounds, and professor of literature, Bernard Nightingale is there to expose anything new he can discover about Lord Byron.
As the play goes on, their findings shed light on the plot unfolding in the 1809 setting.
The child genius Thomasina Coverly grows over the course of the play from 13 years to 16 years old. Having had previous experience playing children, Whitney Richards, although in her 20s, was able to deliver a naturally youthful performance.
The standout was Scott Sheridan who played Thomasina's tutor, Septimus Hodge. Hodge is a lovable womaniser, with a quick wit and nimble tongue. It was most amusing watching him talk his way out of any sticky situation. Sheridan seemed to handle the wordy dialogue effortlessly. One of the most touching moments was at the conclusion of the play when Hodge succumbed to his student's genius, warmth and affection. It is implied that after her untimely death he becomes the hermit of Sidley Park, working on Thomasina's theories until his own death.
The action set in the present day often moves at a frenetic pace due to the excitable personalities of the characters. A key figure is Hannah Jarvis (played by Kirsty Hillhouse), book author with an interest in Lord Byron, though currently researching the elusive hermit of Sidley Park. Her work is sidetracked by the arrival of Bernard Nightingale (Andrew McFarlane) who comes snooping about for something to publish that will make him famous. He settles on a theory that Lord Byron stayed at the estate and killed the poet Ezra Chater in a duel, which Hannah later proves to be incorrect. I would suggest that the sexual attraction between these two characters was designed to be more of a focus; however the chemistry didn't come across for me. Nonetheless, most other aspects of both Hillhouse and McFarlane's performances were very engaging.
Joining the characters in the present day were 18 year old Chloe Coverly (Adriane Daff) and her older brother Valentine (Nick Maclaine). Chloe mastered the art of appearing naive whilst actually being very perceptive and intelligent, even proposing a theory that the Newtonian universe does not work because of sex and the problems that it causes between people. Daff embodied the playful young lady with a mischievous streak and a great deal of sexual confidence. In contrast, the aloof and scruffy Valentine pores tediously over documents and numbers only to give it all up in frustration. Maclaine was impressive as the tortured student with an insatiable thirst for discovery and only a passing interest in women.
Running parallel to the dense text about thermodynamics and chaos theory is quite a scandalous bedroom farce. Weaved into another plot dimension is Ezra Chater, who challenges Septimus Hodge to a duel after he is found to have been discovered in a carnal embrace with his wife, Mrs Chater. The lady of the house, Thomasina's disinterested mother is Lady Croom who also falls prey to the irresistible charms of Hodge. Her brother, Captain Brice contributes to the tomfoolery by falling in love with Mrs Chater and later marrying her. Brendan Hanson was hilarious as the dim-witted and egotistical Ezra Chater and Rebecca Davis was commanding and cold as Lady Croom, with one of the best verbal deliveries of the show.
Respected veteran Edgar Metcalfe made his Black Swan debut as the butler Jellaby, a plot device, basically there to spread gossip and deliver notes. Although it was probably due to the large cast required for this production, it was refreshing to see so many of the biographies in the program begin with "Arcadia marks "X's" debut with the company."
The production design was nothing less than stunning. The stark, white drawing room felt grand and light, with the French doors leading out to the garden bringing a sense of tranquillity. The double doors on either side leading to the house also made it a thoroughfare and meeting point. The lighting and shadows were, as always with Black Swan, a delightful atmospheric addition without being imposing.
Regardless of whether you are an enthusiast of maths, science, gardening, romance, literature, farce or history, there is something about this play which is inspiring and magical.
Black Swan State Theatre Company presents
by Tom Stoppard
Venue: Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA
Dates: 17 March - 1 April 2012
Duration: approx. 2 hrs 45 mins (incl. interval)
Tickets: $69.50 – $24.50