Left – Glenn Hazeldine and Ryan Corr. Cover – Jonathan Elsom and Ryan Corr. Photos – Heidrun Löhr
Arcadia sees the much anticipated return of the work of Tom Stoppard, grandmaster of the play of ideas, to the Sydney Theatre Company. This time he tackles literary History and Chaos Theory.
In an English manor complete with long wooden table, Septimus Hodge (Ryan Corr) tutors Thomasina Coverly (Georgia Flood). He humours the mediocre talents of writer Ezra Chater (Glenn Hazeldine), sending insults flying over his head. Two hundred years later in the same dining room, Professor of Literature, Bernard Nightingale (Josh McConville) visits the Historian, Hannah Jarvis (Andrea Demetriades) to ask for help with research on his theory that Ezra Chater was murdered by none other than Lord Byron. Bernard, along with the play itself, becomes bogged down in the details of which historical figure did what and where. All this annoys Valentine Coverly (Michael Sheasby), who is working with algorithms to explain Chaos Theory?
The play is at its best in the second half when it asks whether the quest to further human knowledge is actually worth it. Does revealing two hundred year old murders or solving the riddles of the universe, actually matter? The sparks fly as the characters become genuinely animated. Perhaps it is the journeys people take to make these discoveries that matter the most.
Ideas come first for Stoppard in the germination of each new play. Stoppard had the idea for Arcadia after reading James Gleick’s book about Chaos Theory. Chaos Theory, among other things, is the way random events can be reconciled with the natural order of things. Stoppard seems totally at home in the world of Mathematics and is able to keep those of us who are allergic to numbers, engaged by constantly bringing the discussion back to the real life implications of Chaos Theory. Also good is the use of witty retorts thrown back at Nightingale by his contemporaries as a device to stop him along with the play itself wondering off into academic smugness.
However, Arcadia is the least impressive of the three Stoppard works staged by the Sydney Theatre Company over the last eight years. It lacks the delightfully mischievous nature of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Travesties. As well as being a meditation on fate, Rosencrantz in particular has a real impish quality to it. It riffs on Hamlet, one of the most critiqued plays in human history, constructing a series of side splitting one liners as if written by a playful undergrad poking fun at the esteem in which Shakespeare is held. Arcadia was written nearly thirty years later and sees Stoppard taking himself too seriously as a playwright. It’s as if he now feels one of the literary elite himself, instead of the one poking fun at them.
You can only speculate whether the script would have benefited from a more adventurous production. Most of the actors seem to spend their time around the table which unfortunately acts as a barrier between them and the audience. Even though there are no bad performances, none of the actors seem to make their characters their own. The costumes are stereotyped, right down to Bernard’s Professor’s Bow tie. The Sydney Theatre Company’s production of the other two Stoppard plays were much more fun. Travesties (staged in 2009) had text from the script written all over the set while Rozencrantz (2013) contrasted over-the-top Elizabethan period costumes wih the two main characters who wore tight leather pants with swords at their sides like Elizabethan Lone Rangers.
The conservative nature of this production makes Arcadia feel like Tom Stoppard for The Ensemble crowd. It is a long dense work so don’t expect to leave the theatre much before 11 o’clock. This is not the play to see after a brain-melting day at work.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Richard Cottrell
Venue: Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Dates: 8 Feb – 2 Apr 2016
Tickets: $104 – $64