Four syllables, but is it a play?

cast of Arcadia

Past and present merge in the candlelight of Arcadia


Malvern Theatres


ORDER and chaos, free will and determinism, the past and the present, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia is an intellectual exploration of sophisticated ideas in a dramatised context that is intellectually too clever to make any sense of for most of the population!

It may tickle the wits of a few of the intellectual elite of the nation but it is will never entertain the


Arcadia is a play that is set in both the past and the present. The location is Sidley Park where in the early 1800s Septimus Hodge, a contemporary and friend  of Lord Byron, is employed as tutor to the precocious teenager, Thomasina Coverly, and he is trying to instruct her in mathematics, Latin and indeed the meaning of a ‘carnal embrace’!

He is also a critic of the poetry of the period and specifically of the works of Ezra Chater who is staying at Sidley. By extolling the virtues of his latest collection, ‘The Couch of Eros’, he manages to pacify Chater whose wife’s carnal embraces he is enjoying.

As time passes and he becomes emotionally involved with the developing Thomasina, so he is later bereaved when she dies an early death in late teenage and he becomes a hermit on the site.

In the present day we meet Hannah Jarvis who is an historical researcher who is at Sidley to uncover the secrets of the hermit in the grounds at Sidley; there she meets Bernard Nightingale, a university lecturer who is researching the life of Byron.

Meanwhile Valentine Coverly, Hannah’s ‘fiancée’, is exploring the population biology of the grouse, utilising the grounds and the game book records to do so.

The play is full of very fast-moving dialogue that is not always easy to follow because it is both intellectually sophisticated and too quick for most to follow if they have not previously studied the text or already seen the play.

As such I have to say I do not think it works well as theatre. The majority of critics acclaim it as a masterpiece. However if you need to have studied the text of a play before seeing it realised on stage, or you need a considerable intellectual familiarity with the philosophical concepts being explored in order to enjoy the experience in the theatre, it seems to me it does not truly succeed! It may be great literature, but not great theatre.

This is unfortunate because the realisation of the piece by the English Touring Theatre is excellent. The cast is strong: Robert Cavanah (Bernard Nightingale), Wilf Scolding (Septimus Hodge), Flora Montgomery (Hannah Jarvis) and Ed MacArthur (Valentine Coverly) stand out in particular. The quality of their voices and delivery are beautifully contrasted.

The set is striking and grand, there is a crispness to the show and a sharpness in the delivery of lines that helps to hold attention even when one is struggling to follow the arguments. The visual impact of the candle-lit scene near the end is beautiful.

Furthermore we are treated to many brilliant Stoppard witticisms: ‘As her tutor you have a duty to keep her in ignorance!'  Septimus is told. Elsewhere, ‘Would you prefer not to be worth insulting?’

For all the excellence of the realisation of this celebrated piece, it remains for me greater as a piece of literature than as theatre.

Tim Crow 


Contents page Malvern Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre