Finding a relative truth

cast of arcadia

Past and Present: Ed MacArthur (Valentine Coverly), Charlie Manton (Augusus Coverly), Dakota Blue Richards (Thomasina Coverly), Wilf Scolding (Septimus Hodge) and Flora Montgomery (Hannah Jarvis). Pictures: Mark Douet


The New Alexandra Theatre


AN evening of past living cheek by jowl with present, science versus art, probability and chance, chaos theory, Newton’s second law of thermodynamics, the interpretation and assumptions made in writing history, not to mention the discovery of the dahlia, all sounds more like a dull and dusty lecture, enlightened only by a discussion on carnal embrace, than a play.

But play it is, a revival of Tom Stoppard’s 1993 work, regarded by many as his finest cration, and as plays go this is not for the faint hearted. It is an intellectual exercise with complex themes and complex discussions wrapped up in some witty lines and clever dialogue - let concentration drift for a moment if you dare!

The single, rather gorgeous set from Jonathan Fensom, is a large table in a salon of Sidley Park, a Derbyshire country house where past and present drift by each other as characters from the 19th century period covered, 1809-1812, act out their lives on the same set  as the present day characters, the present being 1993 when it was written, with props of past and present remaining in both ages, including the venerable old tortoise, Lightning.

Scenes change merely by actors and ages making their entrances and exits with almost two centuries between them until, towards the end, 19th and 20th century  are as one, with neither aware of the other.

We open in the past with Septimus Hodge, tutor to Thomasina Coverly, played with a sort of worldly innocence by Dakota Blue Richards, who is a 13 year-old maths genius. Septimus, played with a sort of handsome, rakishness by Wilf Scolding, is well schooed in the classics and sciences as one would expect of a university educated young man of the day.

He enjoys his role as teacher and, as an an extra curricular pastime, is happy to offer his tutelage n the art of carnal embrace to house guests and even the lady of the house, Lady Croom, played by with a sort of shocked fascination at the offer, by Kirsty Besterman.

As time goes on Thomasina is falling in love with the academic and he withHannah and Bernard her but he turns down her sexual advances on the eve of her 17th birthday, a noble gesture by one usually so generous in the  physical sciences, and a decision which was to not only have fateful consequences but rob the world of a mathematical genius, whose time was only just starting to dawn.

Two sides of an argument: Flora Montgomery (Hannah Jarvis) and Robert Cavanah (Bernard Nightingale)

The plot is simple, Bernard Nightingale, a don at Sussex university, is out to make a name for himself by explaining Lord Byron fled to the Continent in 1810 after killing a man at Sidley.

And with a few facts, Nightingale makes assumptions based on what little information he has, reaching a conclusion that is ultimately proved wrong. Chaos theory in a nutshell, what is known and then what is assumed to fill the gaps over a period of time.

Robert Cavanah is a rather pompous, self-opinionated, fame seeking Nightingale, the worse sort of academic, out to make a name for himself, going with gut feeling – to his advantage of course – whenever fact is unknown.

He is trying to use the work of Hannah Jarvis, a lovely performance by Flora Montgomery, who is researching the gardens and hermitage of Sidley, and is the author of book about of Lady Caroline Lamb, Byron’s mistress. Although Bernard talks of collaboration, he seems to be a taker rather than a sharer and cannot countenance anything which even hints at questioning his views, particularly science..

Hannah, at best, tolerates him and criticises his cavalier attitude to the accuracy of his findings.

Around them we have Valentine Coverly, played with a scientific detachment, and emotional involvement, by Ed MacArthur, son of Sidley’s present day family, a mathematician, the modern face of science, who discovers the genius of Thomasina and her theories which are way ahead of her time. And then there is his teenage sister Chloe, played by Ria Zmitrowicz, who like Thomasina before her, falls for the academic in the house, the somewhat less handsome and more self centered, randy rather than rakish Bernard. A bit of an imagination stretch that one.

Then there are lesser characters, such as the minor poet Ezra Chater, played by Nakay Kpaka, who will put up with most things, including being a cuckold, as long as you praise his third rate poetry, Jellaby (David Mara) the long suffering Butler and Captain Brice, Lady Croom’s brother, sent from the house in disgrace after a night of bedroom Olympics involving guests he had invited – that old carnal embrace again.

Then there is Richard Noaks, played by Larrington Walker, who was last seen in Birmingham as the cantankerous Rudy in Rudy’s Rare Records. Noaks is a garden designer, whose ideas are mistrusted by Lady Croom, and the man who introduces the hermitage, another plank in the structure of the play.

The only link between the two eras iValentines Augustus and Gus, both played by Charlie Manton. In 1809 he is a somewhat precocious, trouble making younger brother of Thomasina. In the present day he is a strange child who has been mute since the age of five.

As the play develops we see not only complex mathematical theories discussed and explained but how minor events in the past can have quite different interpretations in the present if the facts are not known, or, perhaps worse, only part of an event is recorded.

Thus we have a challenge to a duel becoming a death and a quickly sketched illustration of a hermit, any old hermit, is elevated to the only known likeness of Sidley’s eremite, and on and on.

One tiny assumption to fill in one tiny gap can be miles from the truth some 180 years on. Make too many assumptions about too many tiny gaps, too long ago and truth is nowhere in sight. Chaos theory in a nutshell.

Ed MacArthur (Valentine Coverly) with Lightning - who was not real for those worried about tortoise welfare.

There is a lovely touch as the end with Gus waltzing with Hannah in the now and Septimus and Thomasina walzing in the then, all to modern music, which, if nothing else, shows the past will always have a bearing on the present.

The play is full of ideas indeed it bombards you with them all night with not even the respite of a scene change as the pace, dictated by director Blanche McIntyre, is relentless.

There are some very funny lines and witty asides and although it is never gripping, there is enough interest to carry you along through almost two and a half hours, including interval.

You see a scene in the 19th century and then how in the present day fanciful flesh is added to an incomplete skeleton of facts. Whether the tabloids would get so carried away with an academic claiming Byron had to flee the country after a duel is debatable, even in 1993, but we do see how history has to be sensationalised in our celebrity obsessed culture, the Plantagenets and the Tudors currently receiving the speculation and star treatment.

We also see how eager people are to make facts fit their theory rather than allowing facts to speak, or indeed remain silent, for themselves.

English Touring Theatre have built up a well deserved reputation for exceptional productions and this is will only add to that. Incidentally, in an ETT poll Arcadia came fourth in a poll to find the nation’s favourite plays, which can’t be a bad recommendation - the winner was The History Boys which passed through the Alex a few weeks ago.

Stoppards play even has it own misinformation, the science may be right but it is a fictional story, and remember the dahlia? It wasn’t discovered in the 19th century at all and the first specimen in Britain did not go to Sidley or indeed any country house, but was grown from seed in 1798 from originally Mexican plants which were sent to Kew from Spain.

It is not the easiest of plays to watch, demanding constant attention, but it is a rewarding and entertaining expereince. On opening night a few words were lost, which is a pity as this is a play which relies entirely on words, but first nights in a new theatre are a perennial problem for sound engineers and no doubt that will be sorted for the rest of the run. To 28-03-15.

By Roger Clarke



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